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Traveler of the Centuryby Andres Neuman
Traveler of the Century
THE LIGHT HERE IS ANCIENT
A-ARE YO-UU C-COLD? THE coachman shouted, his voice fragmented by the jolting of the coach. I-I'm f-fine, th-ank yo-uu, replied Hans, teeth chattering.
The coach lamps flickered as the horses sped along the road. Mud flew up from the wheels. The axles twisted in every pothole, and seemed about to snap. Their cheeks puffing, the horses blew clouds from their nostrils. An opaque moon was rolling above the horizon.
For some time now Wandernburg had been visible in the distance, to the south. And yet, thought Hans, as often happens at the end of an exhausting day, the small city seemed to be moving in step with them, and getting no nearer. The sky above the carriage was heavy. With each crack of the coachman's whip the cold grew bolder, pressing against every outline. I-s the-ere mu-mu-ch f-f-urther t-oo g-oo? asked Hans, sticking his head out of the window. He had to repeat the question twice before the coachman heard him above the din and shouted, pointing with his whip: A-as yo-uu ca-an s-eee! Hans was uncertain whether this meant they were only a few minutes away or that it was impossible to tell. Since he was the only remaining passenger and had no one to talk to, he closed his eyes.
When he opened them again he saw a stone wall and an arched gateway. As they drew closer, Hans sensed something odd about the thickness of the wall, as if it were a warning about how hard it would be to leave rather than to enter. By the dim light of the coach lantern he could make out the shapes of the first buildings, the round-cut tiles like fish scales on someof the rooftops, the needle spires, the ornaments shaped like vertebrae. He had the impression he was arriving in a place that had just been evacuated, where the clatter of hooves and the wheels jolting on the cobblestones were producing too loud an echo. Everything was so still, it seemed as though someone was spying on them with bated breath. The carriage turned a corner, and the horses' gallop was suddenly muted--they were now on a beaten earth track. They went down Old Cauldron Street. Hans caught sight of an iron sign swinging in the breeze. He told the coachman to stop.
The man climbed down from his perch. When he reached the ground, he looked puzzled. He took a few steps, peered down at his feet, smiled uncertainly. He patted the lead horse's neck and whispered some words of thanks in its ear. The animal replied with a snort. Hans helped him untie the ropes from the luggage rack, pull back the wet canvas, then unload his case and a big trunk with handles on it. What have you got in there, a dead body? complained the coachman, dropping the chest to the ground and rubbing his hands. Not one dead body, Hans said with a smile, several. The man laughed abruptly, although a twitch of alarm flitted across his face. Will you be spending the night here too? asked Hans. No, the coachman explained, I'm going on to Wittenberg. I know a good place to sleep there, and there's a family who have to get to Leipzig. Then, looking askance at the creaking inn sign, he added: Are you sure you wouldn't like to ride on a little farther? Thanks, replied Hans, but this is fine. I need some rest. As you wish, sir, as you wish, said the coachman, clearing his throat several times. Hans paid him, refused the coins he offered in change, and bade him farewell. Behind his back he heard the crack of a whip, the creak of wood, and the thud of hooves moving off.
It was only when he was on his own outside the inn that he noticed a shooting pain in his back, sensed his muscles trembleand heard a pounding in his ears. He could still feel the jolting coach--the lights seemed to waver, the stones to be shifting. Hans rubbed his eyes. The windows of the inn were steamed up, making it impossible for him to see inside. He knocked on the door, where a Christmas wreath still hung. No one came. He tried the frozen handle, then pushed the door open. He saw a corridor lit by oil lamps suspended from hooks. The warmth drew Hans in. From the far end of the corridor came the crackle of an open fire. He struggled to drag the case and trunk inside. He stood beneath one of the lanterns, trying to warm up. With a start, he saw Herr Zeit staring at him from behind the reception desk. I was on my way to let you in, Herr Zeit said. The innkeeper moved extremely slowly, as if he were trapped between the counter and the wall. He had a huge, barrel-shaped belly, and smelt of musty fabric. Where have you come from? he asked. I've come from Berlin, said Hans, not that it really matters. It matters to me, young sir, Herr Zeit cut in, not suspecting that Hans had meant something else. How many nights do you intend to stay? Just one, I suppose, said Hans, I'm not sure yet. Well, when you've decided, please let me know, said the innkeeper, we need to be sure which rooms will be available.
Herr Zeit searched for a candlestick, then led Hans down the corridor and up a flight of stairs. As Hans watched the rotund figure heaving himself up each step, he was afraid he might come crashing down on top of him. The entire inn smelt of burning oil, the sulphur from the lamp wicks, and a mixture of sweat and soap. They reached the first-floor landing and carried on up. Hans was surprised to see that all the rooms appeared unoccupied. On the second floor, Herr Zeit paused at a door with the number seven chalked on it. Recovering his breath, he declared proudly: This is our best room. He took a battered ring laden with keys out of his pocket, and after several attempts and muttered curses, they entered the room.
Candlestick in hand, Herr Zeit ploughed his way through the darkness over to the window. When he opened the shutters, there was the sound of creaking wood and a cloud of dust flew up. Rather than illuminating the room, the feeble light from outside seemed to seep into the darkness like a gas. It gets quite sunny in the mornings, Herr Zeit explained, because it faces east. Hans screwed up his eyes to examine the room. He could make out a table and two chairs. A camp bed with a pile of folded woollen blankets on it. A zinc bathtub, a rusty chamber pot, a washbasin on a stand, a water jug. A brick-and-stone chimney piece with a ledge that seemed too narrow to accommodate any objects (Only rooms three and seven have a hearth, Herr Zeit announced) and beside it were several tools: a small shovel, a poker, a pair of blackened tongs, an almost bald brush. In the fireplace lay two charred logs. On the wall opposite the door, between table and tub, Hans's attention was drawn to a small painting that looked to him like a watercolour, although he could not see it properly. One more thing, Herr Zeit concluded solemnly, taking the lamp over to the table and sliding his hand along the surface. It's pure oak. Hans stroked the table contentedly. He glanced at the candlesticks with their tallow candles, and at the rusty oil lamp. I'll take it, he said. He was immediately aware of Herr Zeit helping him out of his frock coat and hanging it on one of the nails in the wall beside the door--the coat stand.
Wife! the innkeeper bellowed, as if he had just woken up. Wife, come up here! We have a guest! Instantly there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. A broad-beamed woman appeared in the doorway, wearing skirts and an apron with a huge pouch over her bosom. Unlike her husband, Frau Zeit moved swiftly and efficiently. In a trice she had changed the bed sheets for a slightly less yellowing set, given the room a cursory sweep, and vanished downstairs again to fill the water jug. When shereappeared with it, Hans drank greedily, almost without pausing for breath. Will you bring his luggage up? Herr Zeit asked. His wife sighed. Her husband decided the sigh meant she would, and so, after nodding to Hans, he in turn disappeared down the stairs.
Lying on his back on the bed, Hans could feel with his toes how rough the sheets were. Closing his eyes, he thought he could hear scratching sounds from beneath the floorboards. He drifted off to sleep, letting all his cares slide away, and said to himself: Tomorrow I'll gather my things and move elsewhere. If he had examined the ceiling closely with a candle, he would have seen the huge cobwebs between the beams. Hidden among them, a spider watched over Hans's sleep, thread by thread.
He woke up late, his stomach empty. A warm sun was dancing over the table, flowing down the chairs like syrup. Hans washed in the handbasin, opened his case, and dressed. Then he went over to the small painting and confirmed that it was indeed a watercolour. The frame seemed to him rather too ornate. When he took it down to examine it more closely, he discovered a tiny mirror on the back. He hung it up again, this time with the mirror facing towards him. He filled the basin with the water left in the jug, broke off a piece of soap, rummaged for his shaving brush, his razor and his colognes. He whistled while he shaved, unaware of what it was he was whistling.
On his way downstairs he ran into Herr Zeit, who was climbing the steps laboriously one by one. He was carrying a small notebook, and asked Hans to pay for the night's lodging before breakfast. It's a house rule, he said. Hans went back into his room and came out with the exact sum, plus a one-groschen tip, which he gave to the innkeeper with a wry smile. Down on the ground floor Hans had a look around. At the far end of the corridor he could see a large dining room with a blazinghearth and a big cooking pot over the fire. Opposite it was a sofa, which, as Hans quickly discovered, sank in the middle as soon as you sat on it. On the other side of the corridor was a door, which he imagined must lead to the Zeits' apartment. Next to the door stood a Christmas tree that was so exquisitely decorated he could scarcely believe either of them could have been responsible for it. Out the back of the inn he discovered a courtyard with latrines and a well. He made use of one of the latrines, and returned feeling much better. A raft of smells caught his attention. He strode towards it and found Frau Zeit chopping chard in the kitchen. Hams, strings of sausages and sides of bacon hung like silent sentinels. A pot was boiling on the stove. Row upon row of frying pans, serving spoons, cauldrons and saucepans refracted the morning in whorls of light. You're late, sit down, Frau Zeit ordered, without looking up from her chopping. Hans did as he was told. We usually serve breakfast in the dining room, she went on, but I can't leave the fire now, so you'd best have it in here. On the board were laid vegetables, a basted joint of meat, the rippled skins of potatoes. A tap was dripping into a sink full of dirty dishes. Underneath were piled baskets of firewood, coal and slack. Farther off, stacked among a jumble of pitchers and jars were small sacks of beans, rice, flour, semolina. Frau Zeit dried her hands on her apron. In one swift movement she sliced through a fresh loaf, and spread jam on it. Placing a bowl in front of Hans, she filled it with ewe's milk, then poured coffee in until it slopped over the sides. Will you be wanting eggs? she asked.
Recalling how desolate Wandernburg had seemed the night before, Hans was surprised at the hustle and bustle in the streets when he went out after breakfast. Although all the activity seemed somehow restrained, Hans had to accept the evidence that people did indeed live in the city. He wandered aimlessly around. Occasionally, he thought he had lost his way in thenarrow, steep streets, at other times he realised he had walked in a circle. He discovered that the coachmen of Wandernburg avoided slowing down so as not to pull on their horses' mouths, and only gave him a few seconds to jump out of their way. As he walked, he noticed lace curtains being drawn aside, then closing again. When Hans tried to smile courteously in the direction of some of these windows, the shadows immediately withdrew. Snowflakes threatened to turn the air white, but were quickly engulfed in mist. Even the pigeons fluttering above his head seemed to crane their necks to look at him. Bewildered by the winding streets, his feet sore from the cobblestones, Hans paused in the market square for a rest.
The market square was the place where all the streets of Wandernburg converged, the centre of its map. At one end was the town hall, with its red-tiled roof and pointed turrets. At the opposite end stood the Tower of the Wind. Seen from the pavement, its most prominent feature was the square clock face sprinkling the time over the square below. Yet from the top of the tower, even more impressive was the arrow on its weathervane, which quivered and groaned as it twisted this way and that.
In addition to the stalls selling food, peasants came to the market square from the surrounding region, their carts laden with produce. Others turned up hoping to be taken on as day labourers in the fields. For some reason Hans could not understand, the traders peddled their wares almost in whispers, and haggling was carried out in hushed tones. He bought some fruit at a stall. He strolled on again, amusing himself by counting the number of lace curtains that twitched as he went past. When he raised his eyes to look up at the Tower of the Wind, he realised he had missed the afternoon coach. Resigning himself to the fact, he walked round in circles three or four times more until he found himself back in Old Cauldron Street. Night had fallen like a curtain.
Walking along the streets of Wandernburg after dark, passing mouldy arches and isolated street lamps, Hans experienced the same sensations as when he had first arrived. He could see that the city's inhabitants went home early, almost scuttling back to their houses for safety. Their place was taken by cats and dogs, disporting themselves as they pleased, gnawing at any scraps of food they could find in the streets. As he was entering the inn and reflecting that the Christmas wreath had disappeared, Hans heard the cry of a nightwatchman. He was coming round the street corner, wearing a hood, and carrying a long pole with a dim light on the tip:
Time to go home, everyone! The church bell has chimed six, Watch over your fire and your lamps, Praise be to God! All praise!
Herr Zeit seemed surprised to see him, as if he had been expecting his guest to vanish into thin air without warning. Everything in the inn was as quiet as before, although as he passed by the kitchen Hans counted six dirty plates piled up next to the sink, from which he deduced there were four other guests. His calculation turned out to be wrong, however, because as he headed for the staircase a slender figure emerged from the door to the Zeits' apartment bearing a Christmas tree and a box of candles. This is my daughter, Lisa, said Frau Zeit in a hurried introduction as she scurried down the corridor. Still wedged between the counter and the wall, Herr Zeit himself noted the ensuing silence and shouted: Lisa! Say hello to the gentleman! Lisa smiled mischievously at Hans, calmly shrugged her shoulders and went back inside without saying a word.
The Zeits had had seven children. Three were now married; two had died of the measles. Still living with them were Lisa, theeldest, and Thomas, a boisterous child who wasted no time in bursting into the dining room where Hans was eating dumplings with bread and butter. Who are you? asked Thomas. I'm Hans, said Hans, to which Thomas replied: Then I don't know who you are. With that he stole a dumpling, wheeled round, and disappeared down the corridor.
When he heard Hans's footsteps going upstairs, the innkeeper struggled to prise his belly free and came to ask if he were planning to leave the next day. Hans had already decided he was, but Herr Zeit's insistence made him feel as if he were being turned out, and so in order to contradict him he said he did not know. The innkeeper seemed extraordinarily pleased at this reply, going so far as to ask Hans whether he needed anything for his room. Hans said he did not, and thanked him. When Herr Zeit still stood there, Hans added in a friendly tone that apart from the market square, the streets of Wandernburg seemed to him rather dark, and he mentioned the gas lighting used in Berlin or London. We don't need all that light here, declared Herr Zeit, hitching up his trousers, we have good eyesight and regular habits. We go out by day and at night we sleep. We go to bed early, and get up early. What do we want gas for?
Lying on his back in bed again, Hans yawned, tiredness mingling with bewilderment. He promised himself: Tomorrow I'll gather my things and move on.
The night barked and meowed.
Atop the Tower of the Wind, piercing the mists, the weathervane seemed about to fly off its hinges.
After another stroll over the frosty ground, Hans had the strange feeling that the city's layout somehow shifted while everyone was asleep. How could he lose his bearings so completely? It was beyond him--the tavern he had lunched at the day before was on the opposite corner from where he remembered it,the clangs from the smithy, which should have been on the right as he turned the corner, surprised him by coming from the left, the sloping street that went down now went steeply up, a passageway he remembered walking through which should have opened onto an avenue was a dead end. Feeling his pride as a seasoned traveler challenged, Hans booked a seat on the next coach for Dessau, and then resolved to familiarise himself with the maze of streets through which he was wandering. And yet, no sooner had he congratulated himself on two or three successes than he realised to his dismay he was lost again. The only easy place to find was the market square, which he kept going back to in order to get his bearings. Killing time before his coach left, trying hard to memorise the city's cardinal points, he was standing in the square like a sundial, his thin shadow cast over the cobblestones, when he saw the organ grinder arrive.
Moving laboriously yet gracefully, as though as he shuffled along he imagined he was dancing, the grizzled organ grinder came into the square pulling his barrel organ, leaving its track in the fresh snow. With him was a black-haired dog. With an innate sense of rhythm, the dog always kept the same distance from its master, respecting his every pause, stagger, change of pace. The old man was dressed after a fashion in a threadbare-looking dark overcoat and a translucent cape. He came to a halt on one side of the square. Slowly and carefully, he spread out his things, as though miming what he was going to do later. Once installed, he untied the battered umbrella fastened to the cart handle. He opened it and placed it on top of his instrument to protect it from the flurry of snow. This gesture touched Hans, who stood waiting for the organ grinder to play a tune.
The old man was in no hurry, or he enjoyed dawdling. Beneath his beard Hans saw him smile knowingly at his dog, which gazed up at him, its triangular ears pricked. The barrel organ was of modest size--sitting on the cart, it barely reached the organgrinder's waist, obliging him to stoop even lower to play it. The cart was painted green and orange. The wooden wheels had once been red. Enclosed by a metal hoop barely holding them together, they were not round but a more uneven shape, like the years they had spent rolling. The front of the organ had once been decorated with a naive landscape of a tree-lined river.
Hans never felt nostalgia for anything: he preferred to think about his next journey. And yet, when the organ grinder began to play, something touched the edge of something. When he heard the barrel organ's metallic past, Hans sensed that someone else, some past self, was trembling inside him. Following the melody as if it were words streaming on the wind, Hans experienced something unusual--he was aware of what he was feeling, he could see himself being moved. He was listening because the barrel organ was playing, the barrel organ was playing because he was listening. Hans had the impression that the organ grinder was not so much playing as trying to remember. With an airy hand, his fingers stiff with cold, he turned the handle. As he did so the dog's tail, the square, the weathervane, the light, noon itself, went spinning round and round, and as soon as the tune was approaching the end, the organ grinder's timekeeping hand created not so much a pause, or even a silence, more a slight tear in a fabric, before turning the handle again, so that the music started up once more, and everything carried on spinning round, and it was no longer cold.
Coming back down to earth, Hans found it odd that no one else seemed to notice the barrel-organ music. Used to it, or in too much of a hurry, everyone walked by without even looking. Finally, a small boy stopped in front of the organ grinder. The old man said hello with a smile to which he responded shyly. Two huge shoes planted themselves behind the boy's loose shoelaces; a voice leant over saying: Don't look at the man, can't you see the way he's dressed? Don't bother him, comealong now, come along. In front of the old man was a shiny dish into which people would occasionally drop small copper coins. Hans noticed that those showing this consideration did not stop to listen to the music either, but left the money as if they were giving it to a beggar. This did not seem to spoil the organ grinder's concentration, or the rhythm of his hand.
At first, Hans was content to watch him. After a while, as though waking up from a dream, he realised that he too was part of the scene. He walked over noiselessly, and, in an attempt to show his appreciation, bent over to leave an offering that was twice as much as what was already in the dish. At this, for the first time since he had arrived, the organ grinder straightened up. He smiled openly at Hans with an expression of calm content, then carried on playing, unperturbed. Hans assumed the old man had not interrupted his playing because he knew he was enjoying the music. More matter-of-factly, the organ grinder's dog appeared to think this called for some sort of formal recognition--he squinted as though the sun had just come out, opened his jaws very wide and unfurled his long pink tongue.
When the organ grinder took a break, Hans decided to talk to him. They stood for a while conversing, the falling snow soaking their clothes. They discussed the cold, the colour of Wandernburg's trees, the differences between the mazurka and the cracovienne. Hans found the organ grinder's polite manners charming, and the organ grinder appreciated the deep timbre of Hans's voice. Hans looked at the clock on the Tower of the Wind and calculated that he had an hour left before going back to the inn to fetch his luggage and wait for the coach. He invited the organ grinder for a drink at one of the taverns in the square. The organ grinder accepted with a nod and added: In that case I must introduce you two. He asked Hans's name, then said: Franz, this is Herr Hans, Herr Hans, this is my dog, Franz.
To Hans it seemed that the organ grinder followed him as if he had been expecting him that morning. On their way to the tavern, the old man stopped to greet a couple of beggars. He exchanged a few friendly words that revealed he knew them, and as he took his leave he handed them half the money from his dish, then calmly carried on walking. Do you always do that? Hans asked, gesturing towards the beggars. Do what? said the organ grinder. You mean the money? No, no, I couldn't afford to. I shared what you gave me today so that you know I'm accepting your invitation not out of self-interest, but because I like you.
When they reached the door of the Central Tavern, the old man ordered Franz to wait outside. Bringing the barrel organ with them, they went inside, Hans first, then the organ grinder. The Central Tavern was crammed to the rafters. The stoves, the oven and the tobacco smoke created a blanket of heat that smothered voices, breathing and smells. The smokers blew out spirals like ribcages--a smoke animal devoured the patrons. Hans pulled a face. Doing their best to protect the barrel organ, they managed with difficulty to make a tiny space for themselves at the bar. The organ grinder had a dreamy smile on his face. Less relaxed, Hans resembled a prince watching a carnival. They ordered two wheat beers, and, elbow-to-elbow, raised their glasses in a toast before resuming their conversation. Hans said he had not seen the old man the previous day. The organ grinder explained that in wintertime he went to the square every morning, but never in the afternoons because it was too cold. Hans still had the feeling that they had missed out the main topic, that they were both talking as though they had already said the things that in fact had not even been mentioned. They ordered two more beers, followed by another two. That's good, the old man said, his whiskers covered in froth. Through the bottomof his glass, Hans's smile was lopsided.
A coachman came here asking for you, Herr Zeit declared. He waited a few minutes then stomped off angrily. Herr Zeit added thoughtfully, as if he had reached this conclusion after a great deal of effort: It's Tuesday already! Playing along with him, Hans replied: Quite right, it's Tuesday. Herr Zeit seemed satisfied and asked whether he planned to stay more nights. Hans paused, genuinely unsure this time, and said: I don't think so. I really must get to Dessau. Then, since he was feeling quite merry, he added: Although you never know.
Ensconced on the sofa in the dining room, her face glowing orange in front of the fire, Frau Zeit was darning a pair of enormous socks: Hans wondered whether they belonged to her or her husband. When she saw him come in, she stood up. She told him his supper was ready and asked him not to make any noise because the children had just gone to bed. Almost at once, Thomas contradicted her by bursting through the door clutching a handful of lead soldiers. Colliding with his mother, he stopped dead, a pale skinny leg flailing in mid-air. And as swiftly as he had arrived he turned tail and ran. A door slammed in the Zeits' apartment. Instantly, a shrill adolescent voice screamed out Thomas's name, followed by some other protests they could not hear. The little scallywag, the landlady muttered under her breath.
Lying in bed, mouth half-open as though waiting for a drip to fall from the ceiling, Hans listened to his own thoughts: Tomorrow for sure, at the very latest the day after, I'll gather my things and leave. As he drifted into oblivion he thought he heard light footsteps padding down the corridor and pausing outside his room. He even imagined he could hear someone breathing nervously on the other side of the door. But he could not be sure. Perhaps it was his own breathing, growing gradually deeper, his own breathing, his own, his.
Hans had gone to the market square to find the organ grinder. He had discovered him in the same place, in the same position. On seeing him, the old man had gestured to his dog and Franz had gone to greet him, tail wagging from side to side like a metronome. They had shared a lunch of warm soup, hard sheep's cheese, bread with liver pâté and several beers. The organ grinder had finished his day's work and now they were strolling together along the River Walk towards High Gate, where Wandernburg ended and the countryside began. After objecting to Hans paying for his lunch, the old man had insisted on inviting him to his house for tea.
They walked side by side, waiting for each other whenever the organ grinder stopped pushing the cart to catch his breath, Hans lagged behind to peer into a side street or Franz paused to lift his leg here and there. By the way, asked Hans, what's your name? Well, the old man replied, switching to a less formal way of addressing him, as if they were already firm friends, it's an ugly name and since I seldom use it I hardly remember what it is. Just call me organ grinder--that's the best name for me. And what's yours? (Hans, said Hans.) I know that, but what's your surname? (Hans, repeated Hans, laughing.) Well, what does it matter, eh? Hey, Franz, will you stop pissing on every stone please? We have a guest for tea today, behave yourself, it's getting dark and we're not home yet, good, that's what I like to see.
They walked through High Gate, continuing along a narrower earthen track. The countryside opened out before them, smooth and white. For the first time, Hans saw the vastness of the U-shaped plain to the south-east of Wandernburg. In the distance he glimpsed the hedges of crop fields, the pastures for the farm animals, the sown cornfields lying in frozen expectancy. At the end of the path he could make out a wooden footbridge, the ribbon of the river, and beyond it a pinewood and rocky outcrops. Surprised at not seeing any houses, Hans wonderedwhere the old man was taking him. Sensing Hans's thoughts, and at the same time adding to his bewilderment, the organ grinder set down his cart for a moment, took him by the arm and said: We're almost there.
Hans calculated that they had walked more than half a league from the market square. Had he been able to climb the rocks behind the pinewoods, he would have had a panorama of the whole of the surrounding countryside and the city. He would have been able to observe the highway along which he had traveled on the first night, as it skirted the eastern edge of the city--at that very moment, several coaches were making their way north to Berlin, or south to Leipzig. On the far side, to the west of the plain, the air was stirred by the sails of the windmills around the textile mill with its brick chimney stack polluting the atmosphere. In the hedged fields, a few peasants were dotted about, carrying out the first hoeing of the year, slowly scratching at the soil. And snaking through it all, a silent witness, ran the River Nulte. Too shallow for boats, the Nulte was an anaemic river. Its waters seemed worn out, resigned to their fate. Bordered by two rows of poplars, the Nulte trickled through the valley as though in search of help. Looked at from the top of the hill, it was a loop of water flattened by the wind. Less a river than the memory of a river. Wandernburg's river.
They crossed the tiny wooden footbridge over the Nulte. The pinewood and the stony outcrop seemed to be the only things ahead of them. Hans did not dare ask where they were going, partly out of politeness and partly because, wherever they were going, he had enjoyed discovering the outskirts of the city. They walked through the pinewood almost in a straight line. The wind hummed in the branches, the organ grinder whistled to echo the sound, and Franz echoed his master's whistles with barks. When they had reached the first rocks, Hans said to himself that the only possibility left was for them to go through the rock.
And, to his astonishment, that was what they did.
The organ grinder stopped in front of a cave and began unloading his cart. Franz ran inside and trotted out with a morsel of herring in his mouth. Hans's first thought was that this must be some mistake. On second thoughts, it struck him as altogether wonderful. And that nobody in a long while had surprised him as much as this old man. The organ grinder, who was smiling at him again, welcomed him with a sweep of his arm and said: Make yourself at home. Hans responded with a theatrical bow, stepping back a few paces in order to get a better view of the cave's setting. On close inspection, and ignoring the fact that it bore no resemblance to a house, the cave could not have been better situated. There were enough pine trees surrounding it to soften the effects of the wind or the rain, without making it inaccessible. It was close to a bend in the River Nulte, and thus guaranteed a source of water. Unlike other barren, muddy areas at the foot of the hill, the entrance to the cave was blessed with a thick patch of grass. As though concurring with Hans, the organ grinder said: Of all the caves and grottos in the hill, this is the cosiest. As he stooped to enter, Hans discovered that, although undeniably damp, the cave was warmer than he had expected. The old man lit some tinder and tallow candles. By their light, the organ grinder took Hans on a tour of the cave, showing him every nook and cranny as if it were a palace. One of the great advantages to this dwelling is the lack of doors, he began, which means Franz and I can enjoy the view from our beds. As you see the walls aren't exactly smooth, but the irregularities break the monotony and create an interesting play of light, and what light! (The old man raised his voice, wheeling round with surprising agility--the candle he was carrying traced a faint circle on the walls, sputtered, but stayed alight.) Besides, how can I put it, they provide plenty of opportunity to enjoysome privacy or sheltered sleep. The reason I mention privacy (the organ grinder whispered, winking) is because Franz is a bit nosey, he always wants to know what I'm doing, sometimes it feels like he's the owner of the house. Anyway, sshh! I didn't say a word, let's carry on! Here we have the back of the cave, which, as you can see, is simple, but notice how still, how quiet it is, all you can hear are the leaves. Ah, and as for the acoustics, the echoes are amazing, when I play the barrel organ in here it feels as if you've downed a bottle of wine in one.
Hans listened to the organ grinder spellbound. Although he found the damp, the gloom and the dirtiness of the cave uncomfortable, he thought it would be an excellent idea to spend the evening or even the night there. The old man lit a fire with some broom, dry grass and newspaper. Franz had been down to the river to drink and had come back shivering, his fur standing on end, the flecks on his paws a little paler. When he saw the fire, he trotted over to it, almost singeing his tail. Hans burst out laughing. The organ grinder passed him a demijohn of wine he kept in a corner. Only then, in the glow of the fire the old man had lit, could Hans appreciate the entire cave and study its odd furnishings. A few bits of clothing hung from a rope stretched across the entrance. Beneath the rope, the sharp point of the umbrella was embedded in the ground. Next to the umbrella were two pairs of shoes, one almost in tatters, stuffed with balls of paper. Lined up against the wall in order of size stood a row of earthenware cups, some plates, empty bottles with corks in them, tin pitchers. In one corner lay a straw pallet, and on top of it a heap of sheets and scraps of filthy wool. Scattered around the mattress like a ruined dressing table lay bowls, small wooden boxes and pieces of soap. A bunch of newspapers was hanging between two rock ledges. At the back of the cave was a pile of shoeboxes filled with pins, screws and various pieces of equipment and tools necessary for repairing the barrel organ. Spectacularly out of place in themidst of all this lay the immaculate rug the instrument sat on. There was not a single book in sight.
There were two temperatures in the cave now. Within a half-yard radius of the fire, the air was warming up, caressing their skin. An inch beyond that, the room was freezing, lending a hard outline to everything. Franz appeared to be asleep, or intent on getting warm. Rubbing his hands together, Hans puffed into them. He pulled down his liberty beret, wound his scarf twice more round his neck, turned up the collar of his frock coat. He gazed at the organ grinder's threadbare overcoat, its baggy seams and worn buttons. Aren't you cold in that? said Hans. Well, it's seen better days, the old man replied. But it brings back good memories, and they keep us warm, too, don't they?
The fire shrank slowly.
A few days after meeting the organ grinder, Hans was still intending to leave Wandernburg at any moment. And yet, without really knowing why, he kept putting off his departure. One of the things that most captivated Hans about his new acquaintance, besides the way he played his instrument, was his relationship with his dog. Franz was a Hovawart with a broad forehead, an alert muzzle and a bushy, restless tail. He was as sparing with his barks as if they were coins. The old man would let Franz guide him through the countryside; he would talk to him and whistle tunes from the barrel organ to lull him to sleep. Franz seemed to have a remarkable ear for music, and would growl if the old man stopped in mid-tune. Occasionally they would look at one another knowingly, as though they could both hear some inaudible sound.
Without giving away too much, Hans had explained to the old man that he was a sort of traveler, who journeyed from place to place, stopping off at unfamiliar destinations to discover what they were like, then moving on when he grew bored, felt theurge to travel again or found something better to do elsewhere. A few days earlier, Hans had suggested to the organ grinder that he accompany him to Dessau. The old man, who never asked questions Hans did not seem happy to answer, proposed he stay on another week and keep him company before leaving.
Hans usually woke up late, later anyway than the handful of other guests who, to judge by the leftover food, the footsteps on the stair and the sound of doors opening and closing, were also staying at the inn. He would eat his breakfast under the watchful eye of Frau Zeit, whose furious prowess with the kitchen knives would have woken him, or he would go out for a bite to eat at the Central Tavern. There he would read for a while, have a coffee, or more precisely two coffees, and after that would go to meet the organ grinder. He would listen to him play, watch him turn the handle and let his memory spin round in circles. To its rhythm, he would think of all the places he had visited, about the future journeys he would make, about people he did not always wish to remember. Some days, when the hands on the Tower of the Wind said it was time to go, Hans would accompany the organ grinder home. They would leave the city centre, stroll along River Walk and through High Gate, follow the narrow earthen path to the footbridge, cross the babbling waters of the River Nulte, and traverse the pinewood until they reached the rocky outcrop. On other days, Hans would pass by the cave later, and the organ grinder would welcome him with an open demijohn and a blazing fire. They would pass the time drinking wine, talking, listening to the river. After the first few nights, Hans lost his fear of the path and grew used to going back to the inn on foot. Franz would accompany him part of the way, only turning back when the lights of High Gate came into view. Herr Zeit would get out of bed to unbolt the door for him, fat cheeks furrowed, grunting and cursing to himself, snoring in his slippers. Hans made his way upstairs, wonderinghow much longer he could put up with the rickety old bed.
The Zeit family would rise at first light, when Hans had only been asleep a few hours. Herr Zeit made them gather round while he read a short passage from the Bible, then the four of them ate breakfast in their apartment. Afterwards, they would each go off to fulfil their different duties. Herr Zeit would take up his position behind the reception desk, spreading the newspaper over his formidable belly as though it were a lectern, and there he would stay until shortly before midday, when he went out to settle a few bills and other payments. He would stop off on the way home to drink a few beers and listen to the local gossip, which he maintained was part of his job. In the meantime, Frau Zeit would tackle a long list of chores that included cooking, fetching firewood, doing the ironing and cleaning the rooms, and ended after supper with a last bit of darning in front of the fire. Then the frown would fade from her brow; she would cast off her apron and parade around the bedroom in the flannel gown she insisted on calling her kimono, swaying her hips with a mixture of sadness and faded charm.
Thomas's sister Lisa would take him to school. Besides being constantly on the move and never finishing his homework, the boy had a habit that infuriated his sister--he was fond of easing his stomach by letting out little explosions. Each time he did so, Lisa would march out of the bedroom they shared and fetch their mother, who would come and give him a scolding. While Frau Zeit bawled him out and threatened punishment, Thomas would begin again. So, amid giggles and explosions, explosions and giggles, Thomas would finish dressing. He came home every day for lunch, and attended Bible class twice a week. Lisa did not go to school, even though she had always been a more hard-working pupil than her brother. After dropping him off, Lisa would return to help at the inn, shop for groceries in the market square or wash linen in the Nulte. In winter this wasthe hardest chore, because the washerwomen had to search for stretches that were not iced over. Lisa was tall for her age and quite thin, although in the past year she had begun to fill out, a fact of which she was proud and faintly uneasy. Her skin was smooth and downy, except for her hands--in contrast to the softness of her neck or shoulders, Lisa's hands were coarse. Her knuckles were red, her fingers chapped, the skin above her wrists raw from the freezing water. Hans noticed this one morning when he wanted to take a hot bath. Lisa was ferrying pans of boiling water up and down the stairs to fill the tub. He suddenly found himself staring at her hands, but she snatched them away, ashamed, and concealed them behind her back. Abashed, Hans tried to distract the girl by engaging her in conversation. Lisa seemed to go along with the ploy, and for the first time since his arrival uttered more than a few words to him. Hans was surprised at how knowledgeable and self-assured she was, although at first she had seemed so timid. When the bathtub was almost full to overflowing, Hans turned to open his case and had the impression Lisa was lingering in the room. As soon as he heard the door close, he felt foolish for even having entertained such a thought.
Worried about the frugality of the organ grinder's meals, which consisted mainly of boiled potatoes, salted herring, sardines or hard-boiled eggs, Hans would take with him to the cave a little meat, a wheel of sheep's cheese or some of Frau Zeit's sausages. The organ grinder accepted these delicacies, but the moment Hans left, fed them to Franz. When Hans discovered his ruse, the old man explained that, although grateful for his generosity, he had promised himself many years ago he would only live off what his barrel organ could provide, which was why he played it in the first place. Hans finally managed to win him over him by persuading him they were simply dining together. One evening, as they were both tucking in to a pieceof larded beef and a bowl of rice with vegetables, Hans asked him whether he ever felt lonely in the cave. How can I feel lonely, replied the organ grinder, chewing his beef, when I have Franz watching over me? Isn't that right, my boy? (Franz trotted over and licked his hand, using the opportunity to help himself to a small chunk of beef.) Besides, my friends come to see me. (Who are they? asked Hans.) You'll meet them soon enough, you'll meet them soon enough (the organ grinder topped up his glass), I expect they'll show up tomorrow or the day after.
Sure enough, a couple of days later, Hans found two other guests at the cave when he arrived--Reichardt and Lamberg. Nobody knew Reichardt's exact age, but it was obvious he was at least twice as old as Lamberg. Reichardt scraped a living as a hired field hand. He would offer his services to hoe, plough, sow or do a few days' work on seasonal tasks. He lived crowded together with his fellow labourers on church lands about twenty minutes from the cave. Reichardt was one of those men whose once relatively youthful appearance makes them look even older as they age; their lean bodies betraying more starkly the ravages of time. He suffered from stiff joints, and his hairless skin was cracked and blotchy from the sun. Half his teeth were missing. Reichardt took pleasure in using swear words; he preferred them to the actual subject of a conversation. That evening, when he saw Hans arrive, he greeted him by saying: Shit, so you're the fellow who comes from who-knows-where. Pleased to meet you, replied Hans. You don't say? Reichardt replied with a guffaw. Shit, organ grinder, he's even daintier than you said he was!
Beside him sat Lamberg, as always listening and saying nothing. Unlike Reichardt, who would frequently stop by the cave, Lamberg went there mainly on Saturday evenings or on Sundays, which was his day off. He had been working in Wandernburg's textile mill since he was twelve. He shared a room in the houses built around the mill, the rent being deductedfrom his wages. His muscles were always clenched, as if he were permanently suffering from cramp. The fumes from the mill meant his eyes were always bloodshot. Everything he looked at seemed to turn red, to burn. Lamberg was a man of few words. He never raised his voice. He rarely disagreed with the person he was talking to. He simply fixed them with his eyes, red like two glowing pistons.
Franz did not seem to trust the two men equally--he showed a playful familiarity towards Reichardt, whom he kept licking and who he wanted to rub his tummy, while from time to time he would sniff at Lamberg's legs suspiciously, as though he were still not quite used to his smell. Sitting across from them as the wine was passed around, Hans noticed the two men's different way of getting drunk. Reichardt was an experienced drinker--he waved his glass about a lot, but only occasionally lifted it to his lips. He remained relatively alert in his drunkenness, like a gambler waiting for his fellow players to become completely intoxicated. There was a youthful impetuosity to Lamberg's thirst. Although, Hans reflected, perhaps Lamberg's aim was to find the quickest route to unconsciousness, and this was why he drank as though he were swallowing not only the alcohol but also all the words he never spoke.
At the start of the evening, Hans felt that he would prefer to be alone with the organ grinder to be able to talk to him peacefully as was their custom. And yet, as the hours went by, Hans noticed that Reichardt began swearing at him more affectionately, and Lamberg clapped him on the back more gently. Hans descended from proud aloofness to comic verbosity. He regaled them with tales of his travels, some unbelievable yet true, others plausible but invented. Then he described the inn, the way Frau Zeit filleted fish, Thomas's little explosions and Lisa screaming his name. When Hans swayed from side to side trying to imitate Herr Zeit, for the first time Lamberg let outa long guffaw, then seemed amazed at himself and sucked his laugh up again like a noodle.
Amid the tobacco fumes and the heat from the stoves, a city councillor had made his way over to say good day to him. Hans found this doubly baffling--he had never seen the man before, and besides, it was evening. The councillor had planted his elbows on the bar and beamed at him with a friendliness that was tainted with something. Hans had tilted his head back to take some sips from his beer. But the councillor was still there, and he had not come over simply to wish him good day.
After a few polite phrases, abounding with the words "gnädiger Herr", "esteemed visitor", "honourable gentleman", the councillor looked at him differently, as though focusing a lens, and Hans knew he was about to say what he had come to say. We're delighted to welcome you here among us, the councillor began, Wandernburg is a city that appreciates tourists, for you are a tourist aren't you? (More or less, replied Hans.) And, as I say, tourists are most welcome here, you'll soon see how hospitable we Wandernburgers are (I've already noticed, Hans observed), marvellous, marvellous, yes, most welcome indeed, let me tell you. If you don't mind me asking, are you from around here, from these parts? Are you planning to stay long? (I'm just passing through, Hans replied tersely, and, no, I'm not from these parts.) Aha. I see. (The councillor snapped his fingers to order two more beers. The waiter hurried over to serve them.) Well, my dear sir, it's a pleasure to converse with a man of the world like you, we welcome visitors who are men of the world. Doubtless you'll think me inquisitive, and if so I beg your pardon. I simply like to know what's going on, you know, curiosity, my friend! Such an important quality! And so, forgive me, but when I came in I couldn't help noticing your attire (my attire? Hans said, pretending to be surprised), yes,that's right, your attire, and as I did so, I said to myself: Our visitor is undoubtedly a refined gentleman, and, as I said before, nothing makes us happier. And then I said to myself: But isn't it a little daring? (A little daring? Hans said, realising the best way to respond to the man's cross-examination was by repeating his questions with a quizzical look.) Daring, precisely, I see we understand one another! And so it occurred to me, and you will see I have your best interests at heart, to suggest that, as far as you are able and naturally without any obligation, you should abstain from offending the sensibilities of the authorities. (The councillor beamed at Hans again and gestured at his traditional German dress, frowned upon by the post-restoration regime.) I'm referring of course (he added hurriedly, in order not to give Hans time to echo his last words) to the use of certain garments, in particular your beret. (My beret? said Hans. The councillor frowned.) Yes, indeed, your beret. Of your own free will, I repeat (I see, said Hans, you're too kind, my free will and I are most grateful for your advice), good, very good.
Before taking his leave, perhaps by way of compensating for the negative effect of his observations, or to carry on observing Hans, the councillor invited him to a reception that same evening organised by the city council to commemorate a local hero. All the best families in Wandernburg will be there, the councillor said, you know, cultured people such as journalists and merchants. And distinguished visitors, he added as though illuminated by a sudden inspiration. Hans thought the best way to avoid suspicion and to enjoy himself would be to go. He accepted, mimicking the councillor's pompous manner. When he was alone, he walked out into the market square and glanced up at the clock on the Tower of the Wind. He calculated that he had just enough time to return to the inn, take a bath and change his clothes.
To his disappointment, Hans noticed nothing extraordinaryduring the soirée. Beyond the tedium, the evening was sadly uneventful. The inside of the town hall was like all other town halls--a mixture of grandeur and gypsum. The councillor had come over to greet him with a theatrical show of friendliness, and had introduced him to Mayor Ratztrinker. Excellency, he had declared, it is my pleasure to introduce you to ... Mayor Ratztrinker, who had a beaky nose and a shiny little moustache, had shaken his hand without so much as looking at him, then moved on to greet someone else. Looking down from the chandeliers, the reception hall resembled a dance floor where curved topcoats mingled with pointed shoulder capes, flashes of coloured cravats, and lights reflecting faintly off polished shoes. Hans had changed out of his frock coat buttoned to the neck, his tight breeches, knotted scarf and beret, and was wearing a waistcoat and tails, which suited him well, although he detested them.
After making polite conversation yet speaking to no one, Hans had backed himself into a corner and was waiting for the most appropriate moment to leave. It was there he made the chance acquaintance of a gentleman with bushy moustaches and an amber pipe, who was on his way back from the bathroom. When two strangers remark on the tediousness of a party, they enjoy themselves together--something similar happened between Hans and Herr Gottlieb, who claimed he was exhausted even as he went on dipping his moustaches in glasses of wine, like some hairy bird drinking at the edge of a fountain. With no one more interesting to talk to, Hans gratefully accepted his company, and managed to be more or less witty. Herr Gottlieb was the widowed father of a well-to-do family, and, as he told Hans, he had been a tea importer and a textile merchant, businesses from which, at his age, he had now retired. His moustaches had quivered when he uttered the words at my age, and Hans had felt sympathy for him. The informal tone of their conversation seemed to amuseHerr Gottlieb. After three glasses of wine and as many jokes, he decided Hans was a strange but agreeable enough young fellow, and in a sudden burst of enthusiasm invited him to his house for tea the following afternoon. Hans said he would be delighted, and the two men parted clinking glasses. The light from the chandelier floated down and drowned in the wine.
When Hans turned round, he stepped on the councillor's foot. Are you enjoying the evening, my good man? the councillor smiled, rubbing his shoe on his trouser leg like a heron.
The Gottlieb house was a few yards from the market square, on a corner of Stag Street. The entrance boasted two stout front doors. The wider one on the left had a bronze knocker in the shape of a roaring lion's head, and opened onto a vaulted corridor leading to the coach house. The door on the right had a swallow-shaped knocker and provided access to the stairs and the courtyard. Hans tapped on the door with the swallow-shaped knocker. At first it seemed no one was going to let him in. As Hans clasped the swallow's wings to knock a second time, he heard footsteps hurrying down the stairs. They drew nearer, slowing before they stopped on the other side of the door. Hans found himself staring at Bertold's lip.
Herr Gottlieb's valet, Bertold, had a small scar that split his lip in two, creating the impression that he was always about to say something. The scar moved, and Bertold said good afternoon to Hans. We used to have a doorman, the servant explained apologetically, tugging on his sleeves, but ... They climbed the stone staircase, fitted with a burgundy-red carpet and brass stair rods. The banister was a twisting geometrical figure, topped off with an oak handrail. When they reached the first floor they stopped. This was the main part of the house, where the Gottliebs resided. Had they carried on climbing the staircase, Hans would have seen how it changed, grew narrower, shed itscarpet, how the steps were made of creaking wood and the fake marble wall coverings replaced with whitewash. The servants' quarters were on the second floor. The cook and her daughter slept in the attic room on the third floor.
They crossed a freezing hallway and went down a long corridor that felt as draughty as a bridge. The ceilings were so high they were almost invisible. At the far end, Herr Gottlieb's magnificent whiskers parted slightly. Come in, come in, he said, puffing on his pipe. Thank you, Bertold, you may go. Welcome to my humble abode, this way, this way, we'll sit in the drawing room.
When they reached the main drawing room, Hans was able to study the recent course of history in its hotchpotch of styles: the Empire furnishings, the rather provincial insistence on classical motifs, the discreet capitals and pilasters, the pompous symmetry, the proliferation of cubes. Almost every piece of furniture, which Hans took to be made of mahogany, was decorated with excessively ornate gilt-bronze mounts typical of all those countries aspiring to be like the French. Other adornments had been added, mostly in Louis XVIII style, in a vain effort to conceal the fact that time had passed; the more modern furniture showed a different kind of sobriety, a metamorphosis, as though they were insects mutating unimaginably slowly towards rounded forms and paler woods (poplar, Hans suspected, or perhaps ash or cherry wood), as though the battles, treaties, freshly spilt blood and new round of armistices had undermined mahogany's traditional stronghold, besieging it with inlays of amaranth and ebony, overwhelming it with rosettes, lilies, less weighty, more carefree crowns. While Herr Gottlieb pointed him to a chair opposite a low table, Hans remarked from the infrequent touches of Biedermeier that the owner of the house was not at his most prosperous. There was only the occasional homely touch, such as an overwhelmingly Germanic sideboardor an oval side table devoid of triumphant angles and made of simple young walnut or birch. This house, concluded Hans, has tried to find peace and failed.
As they waited for the tea to arrive they talked of business (Herr Gottlieb spoke, Hans listened), and travel (Hans spoke, Herr Gottlieb listened), of matters as harmless as they were trivial. Herr Gottlieb was an experienced host--he had the gift of allowing his guests to feel at ease while not neglecting them for a single moment. Observing that Hans kept glancing towards the bay windows, he stood up and invited him to admire the view. The windows overlooked a balcony that ran along the whole of the front of the house to the corner of Stag Street. Leaning out to the left, half of the market square and the sentry-like silhouette of the Tower of the Wind were visible. Looked at from the opposite direction, from a tiny window in the tower, the Gottliebs' balcony was a thin line suspended in mid-air, and Hans's figure a vague dot on the house front. Suddenly, Hans heard the chink of teacups behind him, then Herr Gottlieb giving orders, and finally his raised voice calling Sophie.
Sophie Gottlieb's skirts swished in the corridor. The rustling sound made Hans vaguely uneasy. A few seconds later, Sophie's figure stepped from the dim corridor into the brightness of the drawing room. My child, Herr Gottlieb announced, let me introduce you to Herr Hans, who is visiting our city. My dear Herr Hans, this is my daughter, Sophie. Sophie greeted him, raising an eyebrow. Hans was overwhelmed by a sudden urge to praise her or to run away as fast as he could. Lost for words, he remarked awkwardly: I didn't think you'd be so young, Fräulein Gottlieb. My dear sir, she replied coolly, surely you'd agree that youth is an accidental virtue. Hans felt terribly foolish and sat down again.
Hans had misjudged the tone, lost the thread of the argument. Sophie's polite yet ironic response to another of his remarks,the kind of ill-judged quip men make when they are too eager to impress a woman, obliged him to take a different approach. Fortunately, Elsa, Sophie's maid, came over to serve the tea. Hans, Herr Gottlieb and his daughter began the customary exchange of polite chitchat. Sophie scarcely took part, and yet Hans had the impression that she was the one determining its rhythm. Hans was impressed not only by the perceptiveness of Sophie's comments, but by the way she spoke--she seemed to be selecting each word carefully and articulating, almost singing her sentences. As he listened to her voice, he swung from tone to meaning, meaning to tone, trying to keep his balance. He tried several times to impress her with one of his observations, but he seemed unable to ruffle the calm aloofness of Sophie Gottlieb, who, in spite of herself, could not help noticing Hans's long locks, and the way he kept brushing them from his brow as he spoke.
Something else surprised Hans as he sipped his tea--Sophie's hands. Not so much their appearance, although they were unusually long, but her way of touching things, caressing surfaces, probing them with her fingertips. Whatever she touched, whether her teacup, the edge of the table, or a fold in her dress, Sophie's hands appeared to determine its significance, to interpret every object. Observing her stealthy, darting fingers, Hans thought he understood Sophie's manner more adequately, and he concluded that her seeming aloofness came from a deep-seated mistrust, a need to examine everything. This reflection offered Hans some relief, and he felt able to embark upon a subtle offensive. Herr Gottlieb continued to be interested in what he had to say, and Hans realised that the best way of communicating with Sophie was through the answers he gave her father. He stopped trying to impress her, made sure she knew he was no longer observing her, and focused instead on showing off his spontaneity and ingenuity as best he could toher father, who moved his whiskers up and down in approval. This different line of attack appeared partially successful, for Sophie gestured to Elsa to draw back the curtains fully. The quality of the light changed, and Hans had the impression that the sun's last rays were offering him another chance. Sophie stroked her teacup thoughtfully. She slipped her forefinger out of the handle, and placed the cup delicately on its saucer. Then she picked up a fan lying on the table. While he was making Herr Gottlieb laugh, Hans heard Sophie's fan splay out like a pack of cards shuffling fortunes.
The fan opened, moved to and fro, contracted, snapped shut. One moment it was a-flutter, the next motionless. It made little twirls, revealing then suddenly concealing Sophie's mouth. Hans was quick to see that regardless of her silence Sophie's fan was responding to every word he uttered. Trying not to lose the thread of his conversation with Herr Gottlieb, he concentrated on deciphering the movements of her fan out of the corner of his eye. As long as the meanderings and digressions typical of a first visit went on, Sophie flapped her fan disdainfully. Once these opening sallies had finished, Herr Gottlieb sought to steer the conversation onto a terrain that Sophie secretly found tediously masculine--the rather crude exchange of achievements and supposed exploits through which two newly acquainted men become friends. Sophie found herself hoping that Hans, if he was as clever as he seemed to think he was, would swiftly find a way of manoeuvring their talk away from this banal topic. However, her father was determined, and she watched their young guest struggle in vain to find a way of changing the subject without appearing rude. Sophie flipped the fan into her other hand. Alarmed, Hans redoubled his efforts, but only succeeded in strengthening Herr Gottlieb's belief that they both found the subject equally enthralling. Sophie slowly began retracting her fan. She appeared to have stopped listening and was gazingtowards the windows. Hans realised time was running out, and, in a desperate lunge, made an unexpected connection between the matter to which Herr Gottlieb kept stubbornly referring, and something completely unrelated. Herr Gottlieb looked bewildered, as though the ice he was skating on had suddenly disappeared. Hans hastened to assuage his doubts with a torrent of arguments that justified the arbitrary association and finally succeeded in pacifying him, bouncing back and forth between the original and the new theme like a ball gradually losing height, slowly moving further and further away from the original topic until he was ensconced in the new one, which was far more likely to be in tune with Sophie's interests. The folding stopped; the fan remained half open; Sophie's head tilted towards the table. The discussions that followed were accompanied by a series of placid undulations from the fan, whose leisurely movement gave the pleasing impression that the conversation was taking the right direction. In a sudden fit of excitement, with a deft thrust Hans invited Sophie to abandon her position as spectator and join in the lively debate he was having with her father. Sophie was not prepared to yield this much terrain, yet the rim of her fan lowered an inch. Emboldened by these minor victories, Hans got carried away and made some impertinent remark--the fan snapped shut, tracing an emphatic 'no' in the air. Hans retreated, qualifying his remark with exemplary sophistry to such an extent it seemed he had meant the exact opposite, while not allowing his face to betray the slightest sign of distress. Sophie pressed the ribs of the fan against her lips, faintly mistrustful but plainly interested. This time Hans bided his time, listened patiently to Herr Gottlieb, and chose the precise moment in which to place a few apposite remarks that forced Sophie to raise her fan abruptly in order to conceal a conspiratorial blush. Then the flapping grew faster, and Hans knew the fan was on his side. Savouring a deliciousfeeling of confidence, Hans allowed himself to venture onto a slippery slope that might have descended into vulgarity (the fan, Sophie's breathing, even her blinking stopped) had he not performed a swift verbal pirouette, alleviating with a dose of irony a remark which might otherwise have seemed conceited. When Sophie raised a slender, compliant hand to her cheek in order to train a perfectly trained curl, Hans sighed inwardly and felt a sweetness course through his body.
The fan episode had lasted scarcely a few minutes, yet to Hans it had felt like an eternity. Once it was over, Sophie joined in the conversation again with seeming normality, continuing to make her terse, perceptive observations. Herr Gottlieb encouraged her participation, and the three ended up chuckling merrily. After their second cup of tea, before she rose from the low table, Sophie looked straight at Hans, stroking the ribs of the fan with the tip of her forefinger.
As the formal farewells began, Hans saw Sophie's movements disappear before his eyes, as though sucked into a whirlpool, and all he could hear was the hum of the house. Hans shuddered, suddenly afraid of having appeared too distant, or of not having paid enough attention to what Herr Gottlieb had been saying. And yet his host beamed contentedly, saw him to the door without ringing for Bertold, and kept saying what a pleasure his visit had been: A real pleasure, Herr Hans, such an agreeable afternoon, don't you agree? I'm so glad you liked the tea, we get it straight from India, you know, that's the secret, it's been a real pleasure, my friend, and don't forget to come round and say goodbye if you leave soon, of course, farewell for now, thank you, you're too kind, the same to you.
Out in the fresh air, Hans began to walk without any idea where he was going, feeling terrible, wonderful.
In the drawing room, Elsa had begun lighting the candles and Bertold was attending to the fire. Smoke emanating from hispipe and whiskers, Herr Gottlieb looked out of the windows, pensive. A likeable young man, he concluded. Bah, Sophie murmured clutching her fan tightly.
Look who's here, Franz! cried the organ grinder when he saw Hans's sleepy head peering inside the cave. Franz ran up to him and hung on his jacket. We were beginning to miss you, the organ grinder admitted. Hunched over the open lid of his instrument, spanner in hand, the old man was checking its interior. Spread out on a newspaper were two cylinders studded with pins, some coiled strings, and a shoebox full of tools. Hans went closer to the organ. At first it looked as if the pins were scattered like tiny insects over the barrels, but on closer inspection he saw they were placed with great precision. He saw the hammers at rest, the lines of three screws to which the strings were fastened.
These pins here, the organ grinder began explaining, turn with the handle and push up the hammers. There are thirty-four hammers in all, and they strike the strings. The low notes are on the left of the barrel, the high notes on the right. Each pin is a note, and each cluster of pins is a tune. You put a tune on the cylinder by punching holes in these parchments, you see, then stretching them round the barrel and banging the pins into the holes. But here's the secret--the pins vary slightly in length and width, making the notes longer or shorter, enhancing or muting them. Each pin is a mystery. Not a note exactly, the promise of a note. The strings wear out, naturally, and sometimes one of them needs replacing. That's a real problem because they are expensive. I buy them second-hand from Herr Ricordi at the music shop. I knock on the door and give him whatever I have in my dish. The strings have to be tightened with this device here, you see? Yesterday I was playing a pavane and,oh! the B-flats were terrible.
How many tunes are there on each barrel? asked Hans. That depends, replied the organ grinder, these aren't very big, eight apiece. I change them from time to time, or depending on who's listening--no one wants slow tunes in summer, people like lively dances. Now that it's winter on the other hand, people feel more introspective and are glad to hear classical tunes, especially when it rains. Don't ask me why, but people prefer slow music when it rains, and they are generous (is what they give you enough to live on? Hans wanted to know), well, we manage, I live frugally, and Franz doesn't need much either. Sometimes I get asked to play at a dance if people can't afford an orchestra. Saturdays are good days because people give a lot of parties (what about Sundays? said Hans), Sundays it depends, if people leave church feeling repentant, they leave me something. People are more generous when they feel guilty. In any case, I don't let it worry me too much, I enjoy playing, I enjoy being in the square, especially in spring. I hope you'll be here to see spring in Wandernburg.
When the organ grinder had finished tuning the strings and closed the lid, Hans could not help caressing the handle. May I? he asked. Of course, the old man smiled, only be careful, you have to turn the handle as if, I don't know, as if someone were turning you, no, not so fast, relax your arm, that's better, now let's choose a tune, shall we? You see this small handle here? To change tunes you have to push it in slightly or pull it out, oh dear! Let go, I'll do it. What do you prefer, a polonaise, a minuet? A minuet is better, it's easier to follow the rhythm, go ahead, stop! Not that way, Hans, you'll break it, you have to turn it clockwise! Slowly, let's see?
Hans was surprised by how easy and at the same time awkward it was to play the barrel organ. Sometimes the handle would speed up, and other times it would drag. He was unable to makeit turn twice at the same speed, and the music came out warped, misshapen, a hiccupping travesty. The organ grinder chuckled and exclaimed: What do you say, Franz, do you like it? The dog made an exception and gave several barks: Hans took this as a bad sign. When the tune had finished, Hans accidentally turned the handle the wrong way before the barrel had finished rotating. There was a crack. The organ grinder looked solemn, moved Hans's hand aside, and opened the lid in silence. He checked both ends of the barrel, took the handle off, replaced it. I think we should leave it for now, he puffed. I understand, Hans said, forgive my clumsiness. Oh, it's nothing, the organ grinder said more calmly, it's been playing up lately, I think the changes in temperature affect it. They don't make them like this any more, the new ones have bellows and pipes, this one is irreplaceable, superior quality, made in Italy. Italian? said Hans, where did you get it from? Ah, said the organ grinder, that's an old story. Hans said nothing--he simply perched on the edge of a rock, elbows resting on his knees, chin in his hands. Franz went over and lay down at his feet.
How strange, the old man said, I've just realised I've never told this to anyone. A Neapolitan friend I had many years ago built this barrel organ, Michele Bacigalupo, may he rest in peace. Michele was fiercely proud of this instrument, and when he was asked to play at a dance, he always took it with him because he claimed it had the merriest sound of all. He made his living with it, until one evening, while he was playing a tarantella, a young man was stabbed for refusing to let his fiancée dance with another man. All of a sudden, there was a scrum of men fighting each other rather than helping the victim. When she realised her fiancé was bleeding to death, the poor girl screamed and threw herself off the roof. When he saw the girl fall, the young man who had stabbed her fiancé leapt after her. It seems the rest of them were too busy brawling to noticeany of this. And do you know what Michele did? He carried on playing! The poor man was so petrified he started up the tarantella again and again. From that moment on, the villagers became superstitious about the barrel organ--the families of the victims claimed it was cursed. No one wanted to dance to its music any more and Michele could no longer play it in public. Years later, I met Michele and began as an apprentice in his workshop. He taught me to play the barrel organ, to appreciate its sound, and to repair it, and then one day he gave it to me. He told me he couldn't bear the fact that no one listened to it any more, and he knew it would be safe with me. I painted it, varnished it and promised him I would never make it play a tarantella (and have you kept your promise all these years? Hans broke in), my dear boy, how can you even ask? Tarantellas are not to be taken lightly.
And that's how this creature ended up with me, the organ grinder said, caressing the wooden box. And do you know what? That was my last trip, I was a very young man in those days, but I've never been out of Wandernburg since. (And those landscapes on the sides, said Hans, did you paint them yourself?) Oh, they're nothing much, only what you see from the cave in spring, I painted them so it would get used to the breeze from our river, which is as small and melodious as the organ itself is (some credit should go to the hand, shouldn't it? Hans said with a smile, you saw what a mess I made of it), well, it's not so difficult, it's a question of having the right touch, touch is the important thing. (Hans, who was toying with the idea of bringing a notebook with him to the cave, persisted: Tell me more.) My dear fellow, you talk like a detective! (Almost, said Hans, I'm a traveler.) Well, this is how I see it--every tune tells a tale, nearly always a sad one. When I turn the handle I imagine I'm the hero of that tale and I try to feel at one with its melody. But at the same time it's as if I'm pretending, do yousee? No, not pretending, let's say that even as I'm getting carried away I have to think about the end of the tune, because I know how it ends, of course, but maybe the people listening don't, or if they do they've forgotten. That's what I mean by touch. When it works nobody notices, but when it doesn't everyone can hear. (So, for you the barrel organ is a box that tells stories, said Hans.) Yes, exactly! Goodness, what a way you have of putting things, playing the barrel organ is like telling stories around the fire, like you the other night. The tune is already written on the barrel and it may seem like it's all done for you, a lot of people think you just turn the handle and think of something else. But for me it's the intention that counts, just turning the handle isn't the same thing as really applying yourself, do you see? The wood also suffers, or is grateful. When I was young, because I was young once like you, I heard many organ grinders play, and I can assure you no two tunes ever sounded the same, even on the same instrument. That's how it is, isn't it? The less love you put into things the more they resemble one another. The same goes for stories, everyone knows them by heart, but when someone tells them with love, I don't know, they seem new. Well, that's what I think, anyway.
The organ grinder lowered his head and began dusting his barrel organ. Hans thought to himself: Where did this fellow spring from?
Light snow had begun to fall outside. The old man finished tuning his instrument. Excuse me, he said, I'll be back. He went out into the snow and lowered his trousers, unembarrassed. A slow light shone through the leafless poplar trees bordering the river, entangling itself in their branches before filtering through the other side and onto the organ grinder's scrawny buttocks. Hans stared at the old man's urine melting a hole in the snow, his meagre excrement. Common or garden shit, plain old shit, shitty shit.
How beautiful you look this morning, daughter, said Herr Gottlieb, taking Sophie by the arm as they stepped into St Nicholas's Church. Thank you, Father, Sophie smiled, there's still hope I'll return to normal by the afternoon.
The parishioners had formed a queue along Archway, opposite the entrance to the church. St Nicholas's Church was set back from the market square, shielded by a small park with some wooden benches. The church was Wandernburg's oldest and most peculiar building. Looked at from nearby, from where the parishioners were now gathered, the most striking thing about it was its brown brickwork, which looked like it had been baked by the sun. Besides its main portal, which fanned out into pointed arches within arches, it had numerous side doors shaped like keyholes. Stepping back a few yards and examining it as a whole, what most stood out were the church's asymmetrical steeples. One ended in a sharp point like a gigantic pencil, the other, more rounded, housed a toneless bell in a tower with such narrow openings that the wind could barely pass through. And yet what most bewildered Hans was the facade slanting perceptibly towards him, as though it were about to topple forward.
Since his visit to Herr Gottlieb's house, Hans had continued to be friendly towards him. What worried Hans was that, despite greeting him warmly and stopping to chat with him when they met in the street, Herr Gottlieb had not extended him another formal invitation to the house. For the moment he was content to drop vague comments such as "How nice it was to see you" or "Let's hope we bump into one another again", courtesies too casual to justify Hans's turning up at the house unannounced. Hans therefore had been discreetly loitering in Stag Street for days, hoping to force a meeting with Sophie. He had succeeded on a couple of occasions, but she had seemed rather enigmatic. Although she answered him with unswerving abruptness, theway she looked at him made him tremble inside. She never drew out their conversations, nor laughed at his jokes, and yet when she stopped to talk to him she stood at a distance that would have aroused Hans's suspicions had he not felt so unsure of himself. Determined to keep trying, and having learnt that Sophie accompanied her father to Sunday matins at St Nicholas's Church, Hans had risen early that timidly bright Sunday, in order to go to Mass. When Frau Zeit had caught sight of him in the kitchen at eight o'clock, she had frozen, knife in mid-air, her mouth gaping wide like the cod she was about to fillet.
As he entered the church Hans had felt more like an outsider than ever. Firstly because it had been years since he attended Mass. And secondly because no sooner had he set foot in the dark interior than he felt himself the object of everyone's scrutiny. The young girls peered at him curiously from their pews; the older men frowned as he walked by. Hat off, snapped one woman. Without realising it, Hans had walked into St Nicholas's Church wearing his beret and looking as though he were a tourist. The church smelt of candle wax, oil and incense. Hans advanced along the central nave. A few faces looked familiar, although he was not sure where he had seen them before. He scoured the congregation, but could not see Sophie, despite having thought he recognised her from a distance. The far end of the nave was almost in darkness, the heavy stained-glass windows letting in only a trickle of light, a fine white dusting. As the liturgy had not yet begun, Hans kept walking towards the front pews. When he reached the end of the murmuring voices he had a clearer view of the high altar with its imposing crucifix, a pair of three-branched candelabra on either side, four altar candles and a grim altarpiece adorned with acanthus leaves. The altarpiece was decorated with two angels seemingly struggling to hold up an oval, perhaps because on top was a chubby third angel clinging on as though suffering an attackof vertigo. To the left of the oval was a snake coiled around a stick and to the right a thorny creeper entwined in a tree. It would only have been possible to see from quite high up, from over the plump little shoulder of the third angel, for example, how close in fact Hans was to Sophie, to predict the moment when he would catch sight of her, and even to appreciate how kind fate had been to provide a vacant seat in the opposite pew, on the men's side.
Theoretically, the central aisle and the strip of light running along it separated the two sexes. In practice, this division only stimulated everyone's interest, giving rise to a series of coded exchanges. As Hans searched for a seat, he glimpsed gestures, winks, handkerchiefs, messages, sighs, grimaces, frowns, nods, half-smiles, fans, fluttering eyelashes. The diversion was abruptly cut short by the booming first chord rising from the organ, whose grandiose prow towered above the main entrance. The congregation stood up as one. The boys' choir began to chant a slow, high note. Various figures emerged from the shadows and circulated among the pews collecting alms for the parish. At that moment, an altar boy, a slightly cross-eyed censer-bearer, and a deacon who shuffled along knees bent, filed out, followed by Father Pigherzog, parish priest of St Nicholas's and head of the Catholic Church in the principality of Wandernburg in the absence of the archbishop. Hans sat down on the first available seat in the nearest pew. The holy procession approached the altar, the four men kneeled before the tabernacle, and Hans squeezed himself in between two stout men. Father Pigherzog kissed the altar and made the sign of the cross. Hans cleared his throat, and one of the men looked askance at him. The boy swung his censer to and fro over the altar, and Father Pigherzog began intoning the Introit and the Kyrie. There! There she is! Hans realised with a start. And there indeed was Sophie, serene and graceful, as though sitting fora profile portrait, her eyes fixed somewhere above the altar.
Father Pigherzog sang the Gloria with great gusto, and the choir responded. Sophie maintained the slyly flirtatious attitude of a young woman pretending to have no idea someone was staring at her. Dominus vobiscum, Father Pigherzog chanted. Et cum spiritu tuo, the congregation responded as one. Hans could not tell whether Sophie was listening attentively or if her thoughts were entirely elsewhere.
While Herr Gottlieb exchanged pleasantries with a few acquaintances outside the church, Father Pigherzog, now in his cassock and cape, had gone over to talk to Sophie. He clasped the young woman's hand in his--Sophie's slender hands had always fascinated the priest, who considered them particularly apt for prayer. Do you remember when you used to come to confession, child? Father Pigherzog mused. And look at you now, it is one of God's miracles how time passes through our souls, look at you, you're a grown woman now, but why do you no longer come to confession, my child? For years I've been asking myself, why did you stop? Father, Sophie replied, trying out of the corner of her eye to determine how long Herr Gottlieb might be taken up with his acquaintances, you know how time flies, and a young woman in my situation has many duties to perform! It is precisely your situation, my child, the priest declared, which requires your constant communion with the word of Our Lord. As you yourself put it, Father, Sophie retorted, with the same acuity as your holiness always shows--time passes through our souls, and that is why they change. You always were a gifted child, said Father Pigherzog, with a good mind, but one which, how should I say, is apt to be unfocused, your curiosity is boundless, so that you end up filling your head with too many facts and becoming sidetracked from the most important fact of all. You explain things so admirably, Father, said Sophie, that you leave me with nothing to add.Child, child, the priest lamented, why don't you at least come to pray from time to time? You see, venerable father, she said, if you'll allow me to be sincere, and, given that in the sight of God's house it is only right that I should be as sincere as you are in your own mission, at the moment I feel no need of prayer in order to commune with my conscience. Father Pigherzog took a deep breath as he tried to follow Sophie's reply. When he thought he had fully understood its meaning, one which Sophie attempted to soften by gazing at the priest with exemplary innocence, he stammered: Listen to me, child, those ideas are making you lose your way, your soul is in peril, but I can help you, if only you'd allow me. I appreciate your concern, said Sophie, and beg you to forgive my ramblings, but it sometimes seems to me that a dogged insistence on faith conceals an exaggerated need to be right. And I doubt everything, Father, and am too weak to bear so much conviction. Hail Mary, full of grace! Father Pigherzog crossed himself. I know you don't really believe that, you enjoy confrontation, but deep down you are penitent. Perhaps you are right, Father, said Sophie, preparing to walk over to Herr Gottlieb. Listen, my child, said the priest, moving closer to her, I know something is tormenting you, and when you come here on Sundays, even if it is only on Sundays, I see you sitting in the pews with that faraway look in your eyes, don't think I haven't noticed, and I see your confusion is looking for a way to repent. Must we be getting home, then? Sophie exclaimed, craning her neck towards Herr Gottlieb, who had not uttered a word. I suggest, said Father Pigherzog, taking her by the arm, that we continue this conversation, we can talk for as long as you wish, it will unburden you and help you see things more clearly. I don't know how to thank you, Father, said Sophie, evasively. Will you come, child? the priest insisted. Will you? Will you who are so fond of reading refuse to study a few passages of the Scriptureswith me? I am unworthy of your generosity, said Sophie, and, since you invite me to do so, I must confess that of late I have become interested in religious writings of which your holiness would disapprove. Such as? queried Father Pigherzog. Such as, she replied, The Catechism of Reason by Pastor Schleiermacher, who, with all due respect, Father, seems to be the only theologian to have noticed that we women, besides being sinners, also make up half the world's population at the very least. At the very least? echoed Father Pigherzog, astonished. Sophie! Herr Gottlieb finally called out. Shall we go, Sophie? Father Pigherzog stepped back, and said, Have no fear, child, I know these ideas of yours are transient acts of rebellion. May God be with you, my child. I shall continue to pray for you.
On their way home, Herr Gottlieb and his daughter crossed the market square. All of a sudden, Sophie stopped in her tracks, let go of her father's arm and walked down one side of the square, drawn by the gentle, weary strains of the old instrument she had noticed more than once when out strolling. The organ grinder was rolling out a mazurka, raising a grizzled eyebrow at every third beat. Hans, who was opposite the organ grinder and beaming with contentment as he stood flanked by two melodies, observed Sophie observing. In fact, he had been watching her since they had left church, but her conversation with Father Pigherzog had gone on too long for him to find an excuse or a posture that would enable him to linger in the background for the chance to greet her. And so he had given up and gone to the square to see the organ grinder. The moment he had stopped trying to find Sophie, here she was walking towards him, nodding her head gaily. Hans nodded back in silence, and, following the slow rhythm of the mazurka, gazed with impunity at her pale neck, her fingers clasped behind her back.
Yes, yes, Hans told him, she stopped just opposite you. (I remember a young woman approaching, said the organ grinder, and I noticed you were very interested, but I can't remember her face, what did she look like?) Ah, so you suffer from the same problem? (What problem is that?) You can't visualise Sophie's face either? You might think this odd, and it's hard to explain, but when I try to imagine her, all I see are her hands. I see her hands and I hear her voice. That's all, no features. I can't remember her. Yet it's impossible for me to forget her. (I see, that's too bad.) It's strange what happens to me when I think of her, I'm alone, out walking, and all of a sudden I see a blurred image of Sophie, and I have to stop, you see, to stare into the distance, as if in my memory tiny brushstrokes, flashes of Sophie's face, were becoming jumbled up, and I had to untangle them in order not to lose them. But just as I'm about to make the pieces fit into a whole, to glimpse her face, something slips away, eludes me, and then I feel the urgent need to see her again so that I can store her up in my memory once more. What do you think that means? (I think it means you're going to have to stay a little longer in Wandernburg, said the organ grinder, grinning.)
Before long Reichardt arrived, followed shortly afterwards by Lamberg. Each of them was carrying a bottle wrapped in newspaper. It was close to sunset, and a sudden wave of cold had descended on the afternoon. Reichardt slumped to the ground and said: Shit, old man, are you a fakir or what? Come on, get that fire going! Good afternoon all, said Lamberg, his bloodshot eyes kindling the flames. He paused, then said to Hans: I saw you in church this morning. You, in church? Reichardt spluttered. Hey, old man, your friend here's gone all pious on us! Hans went there to meet a young woman, the organ grinder remarked calmly. I thought as much, said Reichardt, you scoundrel! He forgot to take his beret off, Lamberg toldthem. Oh, so you noticed, smiled Hans. Yes, replied Lamberg, the girls were pointing at you. And did they laugh at him? asked Reichardt. I don't know, replied Lamberg, I think they liked him. Let's drink to your beret! cried Reichardt. Hear, hear, agreed the organ grinder.
An hour later, the cold was so severe that the fire no longer warmed them, and rubbing their hands and legs did not help. Every time they opened their mouths, vapour came out. The wind entered the mouth of the cave and seeped into the cracks, through the gaps in their clothing, and under their nails. Hans's fingers felt hollow. Lamberg clenched his jaw. Franz swished his tail like a child attempting to shake frost off its rattle. The organ grinder had curled up under his blankets and was smiling peacefully. Shivering from cold, Reichardt suddenly burst into fits of laughter. His whole body shook, he laughed as only those about to freeze can laugh, he let out a puff of steam and began yelling: Butler, the stove, light the damned stove, will you? The organ grinder fell back laughing and cracked his head on a rock. Seeing this, Reichardt jabbed a finger at him before dissolving in a fit of vapoury coughing. Hans pointed at them both and doubled up with laughter. When he saw the other three unable to stop laughing, Lamberg could not help but join in. Say something, Franz! say something! Reichardt roared, his gums stained with red wine.
The fire was dying down. The bottles were empty. Do you hear? whispered the organ grinder. Do you hear it? (All I can hear are my guts, said Reichardt, haven't you got anything else?) Hush, there, in among the branches. (What is it, organ grinder? asked Hans.) They're talking to each other! (I can hear noises, said Lamberg.) They aren't noises, they are the voices of the wind. (What are you on about? said Reichardt.) It's the wind, the wind talking. Franz and the organ grinder listened closely, narrowing their eyes. All I hear is silence, old man,Reichardt insisted. There's no such thing as silence, the organ grinder replied, and he went on listening to the night, head tilted to one side. I don't know why you're doing that, old man, said Reichardt. The wind is useful, snorted the organ grinder.
After a week of calculated meetings and assiduous courtesies, Hans achieved his aim and began to pay visits to the Gottlieb residence. Herr Gottlieb would receive him in front of the marble fireplace in the drawing room, smoking his amber pipe. On the mantelpiece stood a row of indolent statuettes that seemed about to topple into the hearth. During his visits, Hans had the chance to study the paintings hanging on the walls more closely--besides a few dusty family portraits, a couple of poor copies of Titian, one or two gloomy still lifes and some dreadful hunting scenes, his attention was drawn to a painting of a figure, seen from behind, walking through a snow-covered forest, lost or perhaps leaving, with a crow perched on a nearby tree trunk.
Herr Gottlieb had a habit of bursting out laughing, almost invariably because of something his daughter said. It was an admiring and at the same time nervous laugh, the laugh men put on when they are listening to an intelligent woman who is much younger than them. Whenever Herr Gottlieb gave one of his guffaws he looked down at the tips of his whiskers, as though surprised at how bushy they were. Hans would spend more time taking tea with him than with Sophie, who would often go out to the dressmaker's with Elsa, or to go over musical scores at a friend's house, or to return a social call. Only when he was able to keep Herr Gottlieb talking until the late afternoon did Hans manage to see her and exchange a few words. Sophie was oddly reserved--she seemed intent on avoiding serious conversation or remaining alone with him, but her gaze still had a dizzying effect on Hans. When he was out of luck andleft the house early, he would go straight to the market square to accompany the organ grinder back to his cave.
Although Herr Gottlieb had little in common with Hans, he seemed to have found in him the perfect interlocutor. Herr Gottlieb was one of those men who in shying away from intimate conversations show an obvious need for them. Hans sensed that Herr Gottlieb misunderstood his questions yet gave Hans the answers he wanted to hear. And so, after some trivial remark about the beauty of the house, his host seemed to think he was referring to Sophie, and let slip some of his concerns about his daughter. Hans refrained from setting him straight and began listening eagerly. Her mother having died during birth, Herr Gottlieb, who also had a married son living in Dresden, had always been Sophie's sole guardian. He had brought her up with that mixture of over-protectiveness and panic that is the lot of the youngest members of a family. Herr Gottlieb was undoubtedly proud of his daughter, and yet, perhaps for that very reason, he was also plagued with anxieties. As you have seen for yourself, said Herr Gottlieb, Sophie is an extraordinary young woman (Hans tried not to agree too heartily), but I've always feared that with her character and her high expectations it will be hard for her to find a good husband, you see? Perhaps you are worrying unnecessarily, ventured Hans, your daughter seems like a fascinating young woman with a forceful personality (Hans immediately thought: I shouldn't have said fascinating), that is, she is a distinguished young woman, and I'm sure she is perfectly. Herr Gottlieb cut across him: If my daughter persists in being so fascinating and strong-willed, she'll end up with a string of suitors but no husband.
Before Hans had a chance to reply, Herr Gottlieb added: That is why it is imperative that her marriage to Rudi Wilderhaus should take place at the earliest opportunity.
Hans did not respond straight away, as if he had only perceivedan echo of what Herr Gottlieb had said and was still waiting to hear his voice. Immediately afterwards he felt something like a blow to the forehead. I beg your pardon? What? Hans stammered, and fate provided another convenient misapprehension--Herr Gottlieb assumed Hans was interested in Rudi Wilderhaus. Just so, replied Herr Gottlieb, none other than the Wilderhauses, if you please, and do you know something? They are in fact very friendly, much more friendly than they are reputed to be, and, naturally, awfully sophisticated (Naturally, said Hans, who hadn't the slightest idea who they were), but above all, generous. Only a few weeks ago the Wilderhauses were here in this very room, well, in the dining room to be precise, and his parents formally asked for my daughter's hand in marriage, and I, can you imagine, good God, a Wilderhaus! (I can imagine! exclaimed Hans crossing his legs abruptly) Well, I played hard to get, as is only natural, and after that we settled on the earliest possible date, in October, at the end of the summer. Even so, I confess ...
At that moment they heard footsteps and voices at the end of the corridor that led from the hallway to the drawing room. Hans heard the familiar rustle of Sophie's skirts. Herr Gottlieb stopped in mid-sentence, his face breaking into an expectant smile, which he maintained until his daughter appeared in the doorway.
Why does she look at me like that, if she's engaged to whatever his name is? Hans wondered. He could think of one reason that was both simple and logical, but dismissed it as too optimistic. That afternoon, Sophie seemed particularly attentive to what he was saying, and kept giving Hans quizzical looks, as though she had guessed why his face was frozen in an expression of disappointment. During his conversation with Sophie, which had taken on a far more intimate tone than on previous occasions, Hans noticed how, progressively and perhaps foolishly, his hopebegan to feel renewed. He promised himself he would not examine this feeling, but allow it to carry him along like an object borne on the wind. And so, when Sophie declared he would be welcome company (welcome company, Hans savoured the words, mmm, "welcome company") at her salon, he accepted without hesitation. Sophie Gottlieb held her salon on Fridays at teatime, and at them her guests would discuss wide-ranging questions of literature, philosophy and politics. The only virtue of our humble salon, Sophie went on, is that anyone can say what they like. Apart, should I say, from my good father, with his sense of propriety. (Sophie smiled disarmingly at Herr Gottlieb.) Our only rule is that people be sincere in their opinions, which believe me, Herr Hans, is nothing short of a miracle in a city like this. Guests are free to come and go as they please. No two afternoons are the same, some are incrediby stimulating, others more predictable. As we are in no hurry, these gatherings usually go on until quite late. I understand that for this reason alone, my dear Herr Hans, you would make an ideal member of our circle. (Hans could not help feeling a frisson of pleasure at Sophie's small gesture of connivance.) We have tea and refreshments, and we serve an aperitif with a few canapés, we do not exactly go hungry. Occasionally we play music or perform impromptu readings from Lessing, Shakespeare or Molière, depending on how the mood takes us. We are relatively at ease in one another's company--there are only eight or nine regular members, including my father and myself. In short, it is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, so, if you have nothing better to do this Friday ... or are you perhaps leaving before then? Me, leaving? said Hans, sitting bolt upright in his chair. Not at all, not at all.
Accustomed to the dense quiet of the Gottlieb residence, Hans was surprised to find the drawing room so abuzz the following Friday. While Bertold took his coat and walked away touchingthe scar on his lip, Hans's first impression was of a concerto of murmurings with teacups as percussion. The main group was seated on chairs and armchairs around the low table. There was also a man standing over by the windows, wearing a thoughtful expression, and in a corner two other people were engaged in a more private conversation. Sophie sat to the right of the marble fireplace, or rather brushed the chair with the lace of her skirts, always about to stand up. With calm alacrity she would rise to her feet to serve tea, attend to one of her guests or walk about the room like someone overseeing the different functionings of a loom. She was the discreet hub of the circle, the mediator who listened, suggested, commented, forged links, smoothed out differences and elicited responses, constantly proffering pertinent remarks or stimulating questions. Hans gazed at her in admiration. Sophie looked so radiant, happy and self-assured in her movements that he was unable to stir from the doorway but stood for some minutes just watching her, until she herself went up to him--There's no need to be shy!--and ushered him into the centre of the room.
She introduced him one by one to all the members of the salon except for Rudi Wilderhaus, who was absent that afternoon. Firstly to Professor Mietter, Doctor of Philology, Honorary Member of the Berlin Society of the German Language and the Berlin Academy of Science, Emeritus Professor of the University of Berlin. Wandernburg's very own cultural luminary, he had contributed to several editions of the Gottingen Almanac of the Muses and published a poem or a literary column in the Sunday edition of the local paper, the Thunderer. Professor Mietter's mouth was set in a slight grimace, as though he had just bitten on a peppercorn. He wore dark blue and sported an unfashionable white ringleted wig on his bald pate. Hans was struck by the professor's air of unruffled solemnity amid the gaiety around him, as if he did not so much disapprove of itas consider it the result of flawed reasoning or a methodological error. Opposite him, teacup suspended mid-way between saucer and mouth, sat the wary Herr Levin, a merchant with a penchant for theosophy. Herr Levin avoided the eyes of his interlocutors, appearing to focus instead on their eyebrows. A man of few and perplexing words, quite the opposite of Professor Mietter, Herr Levin had the awkward manner of someone trying to appear irreproachable even in repose. Next to him sat his wife, the mouse-like Frau Levin, who was in the habit of speaking only when her husband did, either to echo what he said, to agree with him, or very occasionally to call him to order. Next, Hans was introduced to Frau Pietzine, for many years a widow, and a fervent devotee of Father Pigherzog's sermons and of gemstones from Brazil. Frau Pietzine, who usually had a piece of embroidery in her lap which she would work on as she spoke, closed her eyelids as she allowed Hans to kiss her hand. He gazed at her yellow feather boa, her diamond ring, the strings of pearls that plunged like fingers into the pinkish skin of her cleavage.
Lastly, Sophie paused in front of the gentleman Hans had noticed standing beside the windows. My dear Herr Hans, she said, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Herr Urquiho, Álvaro de Urquiho. Urquijo, the man corrected her, Urquijo, my dear Mademoiselle. Of course, Urquixo! laughed Sophie, excuse my ignorance. Hans pronounced his name properly. Álvaro de Urquijo bobbed his head, sweeping the room with his eyes as if to say "Welcome to this". Hans noticed the hint of irony in his gesture and felt an instant liking for him. He confirmed that Urquijo's German was flawless, although imbued with an accent that gave it an impassioned quality. Our dear Herr Ur, er, Álvaro, said Sophie, however much he might regret the fact, is now a true Wandernburger. Believe me, my dear Mademoiselle, smiled Álvaro, one of the few reasons I do notregret becoming a Wandernburger is that you should consider me such. My dear friend, Sophie retorted, raising a shoulder towards her chin, you must not be so subtle in your flattery, remember you are a Wandernburger now. Álvaro gave a loud chortle and refrained from replying, conceding the point to his hostess. Sophie took her leave with a swift gesture, and went to attend to Frau Pietzine, who was clutching her needlework with a look of boredom on her face.
The afternoon slipped by pleasantly. Under the auspices of Sophie, who facilitated occasional exchanges between them, Hans was able to study the other members of her salon more closely. Each time he was asked what he did for a living, Hans replied that he traveled, he traveled and he translated. Some understood from this that he was an interpreter, others a diplomat, still others that he was on holiday. And yet everyone responded politely: Oh, I see. The conversations ebbed and flowed. Sophie circulated from one to another, aided by Elsa and Berthold. Herr Gottlieb, slightly removed from the centre of the gathering, his whiskers curled around his pipe, sat in silence observing the proceedings ironically, sceptical of whatever was being discussed, but proud of his daughter's easy grace. Whenever she spoke, he smiled benignly like a person who believes they know the person to whom they are listening very well. Sophie on the other hand glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and gave him the opposite kind of smile--that of someone who believes the person listening to them hasn't a clue about their beliefs. Herr Gottlieb seemed to pay most attention to Professor Mietter, often agreeing with what he said. Contrary to what he had initially thought, Hans had to confess that the professor was extremely knowledgeable. Despite his tedious way of holding forth, he advanced his arguments in a rigorous and impeccably orderly fashion, without his wig shifting an inch. Professor Mietter is almost unassailable, thoughtHans--he either uses simple logic to put forward his views or else imposes them thanks to his listeners' inertia, since in order to refute his opinions it is necessary to break down each of his erudite arguments, which he erects like firewalls. Although Hans was careful not to contradict him during that first meeting, he knew that if they met regularly they were destined to clash. For his part, Professor Mietter treated him with a studied politeness that Hans found almost aggressive. Whenever the professor listened to Hans's opinions, so at odds with his own, he would raise his teacup cautiously to his lips, as though not wanting to steam up his spectacles.
Hans thought Bertold was following Elsa around, or that Elsa was trying to avoid Bertold, or both. Despite her attentiveness, Hans sensed a rebelliousness in Elsa--her gaze was more direct than was usual among servants, as though behind her silence there was defiance. Although they had both been employed at the Gottlieb residence for roughly the same length of time, Bertold seemed to be part of the furniture, whereas Elsa gave the impression of just passing through. Bertold attended the guests obligingly, Elsa did so grudgingly. My dear! Frau Pietzine suddenly called out to her. My dear, go to the kitchen and ask if there are any meringues left, yes, thank you, dear, and so, darling Sophie, will you not delight us today with your piano playing? Really? Oh, I'm so disappointed! The piano when it is well played is so, so, I just adore the piano, don't you think, Herr Hans, that our beloved Sophie ought perhaps to, well, to play a little welcoming piece in your honour? I think if we all insist, what do you mean you refuse! Oh don't make us plead, child! Really? Next week, you say? That's a promise? Very well, very well, but remember you've given your word! It's my age, you see, Herr Hans, at my age music moves one so!
Whenever Frau Pietzine referred to her age, she would make adramatic pause and wait for a fellow guest to pay her a compliment. Still unaware of this, Hans was not forthcoming with any praise. Frau Pietzine lifted her chin, blinked three times in succession and turned around to join in the conversation between Herr Levin and Álvaro. Hans edged closer to Álvaro, hoping to renew at the first opportunity the discussion they had left off previously. As soon as he exchanged a few ideas with Herr Levin, Hans had the impression he was far too condescending towards him really to agree with anything he said. He suspected Herr Levin of concurring with everyone not out of modesty, but because he was secretly sure of quite the opposite but was not prepared to argue about it. He also thought Frau Levin behaved towards her husband in the same way he did to the others. As for the Spanish guest, Álvaro, Hans was able to confirm what he had suspected--he was different from the others, not because he was a foreigner but because of some dissenting convictions that aroused Hans's interest. Álvaro seemed willing to satisfy his curiosity--when Professor Mietter launched into one of his monologues, Álvaro would catch Hans's eye, and a flicker of amusement would appear on Álvaro's lips, which turned into a frank smile when Hans responded.
That afternoon Hans made these and other observations. And yet they all turned on the same axis, like threads around a bobbin--the focus, the real reason for his visit to the Gottlieb Salon, was beyond a doubt his desire to be close to Sophie. She spoke to him now and then, although their conversations never ran on, and it was always Sophie who broke them off on some pretext or other. So it seemed to Hans at any rate. Was it shyness? Or pride? Perhaps he was behaving inappropriately. Or possibly his conversation bored her. But if so then why had she invited him? That afternoon, Hans agonised over the meaning of Sophie's gestures, conferring on each too much significance, veering constantly between enthusiasm and disappointment,sudden delight and petty resentment.
For her part Sophie had the impression that Hans, seemingly with impeccable courtesy yet with a certain underlying impertinence, had spent the entire afternoon creating small points of intimacy between them during their conversations. Sophie refused to tolerate this attitude for a number of reasons. Firstly, she had endless things to attend to during these gatherings, and was not about to neglect her duties in order to please anyone. Secondly, Hans was a newcomer, and should not expect any preferential treatment--this would be unreasonable and unfair on the others. Thirdly, she was of course a recently betrothed woman and her father was keeping an eagle eye on her from behind the veil of his pipe smoke. Finally, without knowing why, Sophie realised with annoyance that whenever she spoke to Hans her mind began to wander and she had inconvenient thoughts quite unrelated to the salon.
Even so, Sophie told herself as she swished her skirts from one end of the room to the other, these slight objections were not enough of a reason to stop inviting Hans to the salon--she could not deny that his contributions, more frequent as the hours went by, were original and slightly provocative, and would enhance the debates. And this was the only thing, Sophie kept saying to herself, the only thing that persuaded her Hans should be allowed to keep coming.
I don't know what it is about this city, Hans said, handing the bowl of rice back to the organ grinder, it's as if it won't let me leave. The organ grinder chewed, nodded his head and tugged on his beard. First you appeared, Hans said, and then her, there's always some reason for me to delay my journey. Sometimes it feels as if I've just arrived in Wandernburg; other days I wake up with the sensation of having lived here all my life. When I go out I look at the coaches and say to myself: Go on, climbaboard, it's very simple, you've done it a thousand times. Yet I let them go by, and I don't understand what's happening to me. Why, yesterday Herr Zeit didn't even ask me when I was leaving as he does every night. I paused as we crossed on the stairs, but instead he looked at me and said, See you in the morning. It felt terrible. I hate knowing the future. I could hardly sleep for thinking about it. How many days have I been here? To begin with I knew exactly how many, but now I couldn't say for sure. (Why does that worry you? the organ grinder said, what's wrong with staying here?) I don't know, I suppose I'm afraid of carrying on seeing Sophie and then having to leave, it would be worse, maybe I should continue my travels while there's still time. (But isn't that what love is, the old man said, being happy to stay?) I'm not sure, organ grinder, I've always thought of love as pure movement, a sort of journey. (But if love itself is a journey, the old man argued, why would you need to leave?) Good question, well, for example, in order to come back, in order to be sure you're in the right place. How can you know that if you've never left it? (That's how I know I love Wandernburg, replied the organ grinder, because I don't want to leave.) All right, all right, but what about people? Does the same rule apply to people? For me there's no greater joy than being reunited with a friend I've not seen for a long time. What I mean is, we also go back to places because we love them, don't you think? And loving someone can be like a homecoming (being older, I think that love, love of places, people or things, is about harmony, and harmony for me is to be at rest, to observe what's around me, being happy to be where I am, and, well, that's why I always play in the market square, because I can't imagine a better place), places and things stay the same, but people change, we change. (My dear Hans, places are constantly changing, haven't you noticed the branches, the river?) No one notices those things, organ grinder, everyone walks aroundwithout seeing, they become accustomed, accustomed to their houses, their jobs, their loved ones, and in the end they convince themselves that this is their life, there can be no other, it's just a habit (that's true, although love can be a habit, too, can't it? Loving someone could be, I don't know, like living inside that person), I think I'm getting drunk, Hans sighed, slumping back onto the pallet. The organ grinder stood up. I think we need a third opinion, he announced with a grin. He poked his head out of the cave and proclaimed: What do you think, Franz? But Franz did not bark, and went on lifting his leg calmly against a pine tree. The organ grinder looked at Hans, who sat head in hand. Come on, the old man said, cheer up. What would you like to hear, a waltz or a minuet?
Herr Zeit saw the dark lines under Hans's eyes and cleared his throat. Good morning, he said, it's Friday already! Yes, Hans replied, without much enthusiasm. But then immediately thought: Friday! and remembered the salon was that afternoon. He pulled himself together, instinctively tidied his hair, and felt a sudden rush of tenderness towards the innkeeper's rippling belly. Do you know something, Herr Zeit? he said, to make conversation. I was wondering the other day why there aren't more guests at the inn. Are you unhappy with the service? said Herr Zeit apparently offended. I didn't mean that at all, Hans explained hurriedly, I'm simply surprised the inn is so empty. There's nothing strange about it, Frau Zeit's voice chimed in from behind. Hans wheeled round and saw her walking towards them, carrying a pile of logs. It's the same every year, she said, in winter we have next to no guests, but in spring and particularly in summer, we get so busy we even have to hire a couple of servants to attend to all the guests. Herr Zeit scratched his belly. If you stay on until the season begins, you'll see for yourself, said the innkeeper. I was also wondering, Hansadded, where I might send a telegram from. I haven't seen any telegraph offices. There aren't any in Wandernburg, replied Herr Zeit, we don't need them. When we have something to say to each other we do it in person. When we want to send a letter, we wait for the postman and we give it to him. We're simple folk. And proud of it.
Lisa! Are you bringing that laundry in or what? yelled Frau Zeit. Lisa came in from the backyard carrying a basket full of stiff linen. She had an annoyed look on her face and her hair was speckled with snow. When she saw Hans in the passageway, she dropped the basket on the floor as though it didn't belong to her, and pulled down her jersey, which filled out slightly. Here it is, Mother, she said looking at Hans. Good morning, Lisa, he said. Good morning, she beamed. Is it very cold outside? he enquired. A little, she said. Noticing that Hans was holding a cup, Lisa said: Is there any coffee left, mother? Later, Frau Zeit replied, first go and fetch the groceries, it's getting late. Lisa sighed. Well, she said, I'll see you later, I suppose. Yes, see you later, he nodded. When Lisa closed the door, Hans, Herr Zeit and his wife all remained silent. Lisa raised the lapels of her coat round her face. She grinned.
The whole of Old Cauldron Street, the windows, rooftops, as well as the surrounding roads and country paths, had almost disappeared beneath the snow. Above Wandernburg, across the floor of the sky, came the sound of furniture being shifted.
Professor Mietter's wig glowed in the firelight from the marble hearth as he talked with Herr Gottlieb. Frau Pietzine embroidered, listening in to their conversation. Herr Levin and Frau Levin exchanged discreet smiles. Álvaro was chatting to Hans and gesticulating wildly. Standing to one side of the fireplace, next to her father's chair, Sophie threaded conversations together, making them circulate around the room. Hans wascontent--owing to an unavoidable engagement with a count new to the region Rudi Wilderhaus had been unable to attend the salon that afternoon either. Hans had been seated next to Sophie, so that in order to see her face when she was sitting down he was obliged to turn his head. As a newcomer, Hans was, or felt he was, too conspicuous to dare make any suspicious movements. And so, by shifting his chair slightly each time he rose to his feet or sat up straight, he contrived to move within visual range of the large round mirror hanging on the wall opposite the fireplace. Thanks to this he became accustomed to studying Sophie's movements and gestures without seeming indiscreet. Hans did not know whether she had noticed his optical manoeuvre, although the intricate poses she began adopting in her chair made him think as much.
I for one, asserted Herr Gottlieb, consider the introduction of a customs union unwise. Just think, my friends, of the terrible competition it would unleash, and who knows whether the small shopkeepers would end up being driven to the wall, not to mention all the family businesses people have worked so hard to build up. On the contrary, Herr Gottlieb, argued Herr Levin, a customs union would stimulate the market, businesses would prosper and trade would increase (as would commissions, eh? Professor Mietter remarked sardonically), ahem, I am merely hazarding a guess. I wouldn't be so sure, replied Herr Gottlieb, some broker might come here tomorrow from, I don't know, from Maguncia, for instance, and take over all your business! I think we should stay as we are, things can always get worse, believe me, I have seen it happen. Well, said Herr Levin, if it's a division of labour we are talking about, perhaps Mr Smith is not so mistaken when he suggests that each country should specialise in what it is naturally disposed to produce (naturally? What does naturally mean? said Álvaro), well, according to its conditions, climate, tradition and so forth, and, yes, be ableto trade its produce freely with other countries, ahem, that's the idea. And an interesting one, Herr Levin, Hans spoke up, although in order to talk of free trade we must first consider who would preside over this specialised or natural form of production, or whatever we want to call it. For if there were only a handful of owners it follows they would become the country's true masters and would be the ones who decided the rules of the game, and the conditions in which everyone lived. Smith's theories are capable of enriching a state and impoverishing its workers. Before free trade I think other measures are needed, such as agrarian reform, the dismantling of the large estates and a more just distribution of land. This would not mean simply freeing trade but breaking down the real barriers, beginning with the socio-economic ones. Oh, said Professor Mietter, I suppose you are going to start quoting Saint-Simon? Not exactly, Herr Professor, Hans retorted, although I don't see any reason why not. Workers cannot be entirely reliant on their masters, the state should not exactly control, but intervene up to a certain point, in order to guarantee certain basic rights. Naturally, said Professor Mietter, we need a powerful state to show us the way, a state like the ones Napoleon or Robespierre wanted! That is not what I meant, Hans said, a redistribution of wealth does not have to end in a reign of terror. (And who can guarantee it will not lead to such extremes? asked the professor. Who will control the state?) Well then professor, are we to leave control of the factories in God's hands? Ahem, interrupted Herr Levin, to get back to Smith ... I agree with the customs union, Hans interrupted him, aware he was probably talking too much, but only as a first step. With all due respect, Herr Levin, free trade among nations would be the least of it, important, of course, but not essential (and what would be essential, if you do not mind telling us? asked Professor Mietter), well, in my view the essential thing would be a common foreign policy. Completelydifferent from the Holy Alliance of course, which is simply designed to protect the monarchies. I am speaking of parliamentary rather than military union, of a Europe that would think like one country, a society made up of citizens, not a collection of trading partners. Granted, the first thing would be to do away with some of its borders. After that, why not continue with customs unions? Why not think of the German union as part of a continental whole? Professor Mietter's mouth formed into an "O" as though he were sipping a cocktail. How ingenious of you! he said, and who exactly would we unite with, Herr Hans? With the French who invaded us? With the English who have monopolised industry? Or with the Spaniards, who are as likely to crown the same king twice as they are to proclaim an illegal republic? Let's be realistic! Let's stop dreaming! In any event, Hans shrugged, I consider it a dream worth having. Flights of fancy, indeed, Herr Levin reflected, although ...
Sophie clasped her hands together smiling discreetly, and said: In principle I concur with Herr Hans's dream. Herr Gottlieb's eyes narrowed. He lit his pipe, and appeared to set his thoughts on fire. Don't exaggerate, Professor, said Álvaro (don't exaggerate about what? asked Professor Mietter), about Spain (ah, said the professor). Would anyone like some more pastries? Sophie said, standing up and evading Hans in the round mirror.
For a while Hans's mind strayed from the discussion. When he went back to it, Álvaro was speaking. Spain? he was saying, well, that depends, I was in the habit of reading Jovellanos and Olavide. My dear man, Professor Mietter said, with genuine interest (although Hans, still unable to distinguish the nuances of his voice, thought he was being ironic), I'm afraid we do not know who those two might be. Then it will be my honour to enlighten you, said Álvaro (and now Hans was unsure if he meant it ironically), and don't worry, Professor, we Spaniards are used to it--my country boasts few thinkers, the few we haveare rather good at it, and abroad everyone thinks we have no thinkers at all. Olavide was a courageous man, too much of a Voltairean to be a Sevillian, or too much of a Sevillian to carry out a French-style revolution. Scarcely anyone read him then and now they read him even less. Jovellanos on the other hand became quite well-known. He was a learned man although, shall we say, not without his contradictions. His vocation as a priest compromised his reformist tendencies, if you see what I mean. Naturally, he was too intelligent not to offend many people. Where I come from, dear friends, even moderate liberals end up in exile. A change of monarch was enough to send Jovellanos from the Madrid court to the Asturian mines, and from there to a prison where he was allowed to swim in the sea under guard, without ever really changing his cautious opinions (how interesting! exclaimed Frau Pietzine. It reminds me of a novel I read recently. My dear, Sophie said, stroking her arm, do tell us about it later) until at the last he died of pneumonia. I would even go so far as to say, my friends, that in Spain it is well nigh impossible to be a liberal and not to die of pneumonia. To Hans's surprise, Professor Mietter took a notebook from his pocket, jotted down a few words and said: And in your estimation, Herr Urquiho, what is Hovellanos's best work? Urquijo, Álvaro said, smiling. His best work? That is hard to say. In my view Jovellanos's greatest achievement was to make Spain understand that the way its people play, amuse themselves and fight bulls depends on the way they live, work and are governed. Ah, I see, Mietter said, glancing up from his notebook, a product of the French Enlightenment. Álvaro sighed: A genuine one, yes. Hans sensed he was holding something back and asked: But? Pleased by his intuitive response, Álvaro nodded at him as he replied: Only that he took Communion every fortnight! (Hans glanced at Herr Gottlieb and stifled a laugh.) There it is, the Spanish Enlightenment was a melancholy joke.
Seeing her mollify Professor Mietter with praise as she smiled enthusiastically, Hans began to suspect Sophie's silence was strategic rather than a result of her having no opinions. Perhaps she enjoyed the passion of their debates. Perhaps she encouraged them by avoiding interrupting their ripostes while keeping the professor as happy as possible. This woman will reduce me to a nervous wreck, thought Hans. But, mein Herr, said Professor Mietter, straightening his spectacles, order in Europe is absolutely essential; I need hardly remind you of all the wars and invasions we have endured. Professor, replied Hans giving a sidelong glance in the mirror, there will never be order in Europe without a just order in every country. Is it not worth at least giving a thought to the fact that the constitutions imposed on us by our invaders have given us greater freedoms than our own?
At that moment, there was an interplay of glances--in the round mirror Hans saw Herr Gottlieb turn to look at him, while at the same instant he saw Sophie trying to catch his eye in the glass to signal to him he should look round. Hans wheeled just in time to say: I beg you to excuse my vehemence, sir. Herr Gottlieb shook his head, as though declining to issue any judgement. My dear Monsieur Hans, Sophie broke in, my father is respectful of everyone's opinion and appreciates the freedom with which we express ourselves in this salon. It is one of the things I most admire about him, is it not, dear Papa? Herr Gottlieb smoothed his whiskers in a gesture of modesty, took his daughter's hand and settled back in his armchair. This, ahem, commented Herr Levin with unexpected archness, is precisely what I was saying, laissez faire, laissez passer. Everybody laughed as one. An invisible cog appeared to be released and began turning once more. In the mirror, Hans saw Sophie raise her eyebrows.
Gnädiger Herr Hans, resumed Professor Mietter, will you tell us why you detest Metternich so much? Because he has a big nose, replied Hans. Sophie was unable to stifle a giggle. Thenshe glanced at her father, looked away and hurried off to fetch some more cake, taking Elsa with her. Álvaro joined in: His Majesty Friedrich Wilhelm is also rather well endowed in the snout department--perhaps that explains why he is able to ferret out anything that whiffs of republicanism. Professor Mietter, who had an amazing ability to remain all the more calm when he seemed about to lose his temper, responded in a patronising voice: Who does not aspire to liberté et fraternité? Sans rancune bien sûr, mais qui ne les voudrait pas? Why, Our Saviour himself preached them! Frankly, gentlemen, you astonish me with the old-fashionedness of your newfangled ideas. Remember, Herr Gottlieb chimed in, raising his forefinger and poking his whiskers out from behind his armchair like a beaver popping up its head, remember what happened after the storming of the Bastille. My dear Monsieur, replied Hans, with the way things are in France now, it would be no surprise if they storm it again. Professor Mietter gave an abrupt laugh. I see you possess l'esprit moqueur, Hans added. As they looked one another in the eye, each was forced to concede that the other spoke French with an impeccable Parisian accent. Just then, Sophie re-emerged from the corridor. The flurry of her skirts stopped at the fireplace. Herr Hans, my dear young friend, Professor Mietter went on in a more mellifluous tone, let us be reasonable, consider where the Revolution has brought us, as our dear Herr Gottlieb pointed out, and tell us--is this justice? Does it herald a new era? Chopping off heads? Going from one absolutism to another even greater absolutism? Overthrowing kings in order to crown emperors? Explain to us how this is meant to be our famous liberté? I have no idea, replied Hans, but believe me I know how not to achieve it. By abolishing constitutions and outlawing the freedom of the press, for example. In France, Álvaro added, they were promised a revolution, and all they got was an insurrection. A true revolution would be quitedifferent. Yes, but what, said Herr Levin, appearing to come to life, what would it be? I imagine, said Hans, it would be totally different, something that would change us before it changed our governments. At least in France, Álvaro said mockingly, governments start revolutions, here it is left to the philosophers. If we look at the meaning of the word in Latin it is quite clear, declared Professor Mietter, revolution means a turning back. It simply repeats itself. And I fear, gentlemen, that what you call freedom is merely historical impatience. Impatience, Professor, is the cornerstone of freedom, said Álvaro. Or not, ventured Herr Levin. Why not? Frau Pietzine intervened unexpectedly. Monsieur Hans? enquired Sophie. I would prefer, said Hans with a grin, not to lose my patience.
Cutting through the silence, Sophie suddenly said: And what about you, Madame Levin? Frau Levin looked up at her in horror. Me? she stammered, What about me? My dear friend, said Sophie, you are as quiet as a mouse! I am asking about your political views, if that is not too impertinent a question, she added, gazing at Herr Levin and fluttering her eyelashes enchantingly. To tell the truth, said Frau Levin reaching up to touch her chignon, I do not have any political views to speak of. Do you mean, Madame, said Álvaro, that you never think about politics, or that you find the subject tedious? Herr Levin said: Political discussions bore my wife because she never thinks about such matters. Monsieur Levin, sighed Sophie, you do have a way of breaking the silence!
Steam from their refreshments mingled with the smoke from Herr Gottlieb's pipe. Elsa and Bertold lit candles. Bertold whispered something in Elsa's ear; she shook her head. In the candlelight, Professor Mietter's features took on a faintly heroic air. And in my view, said the professor, far from considering Bonaparte's demise and the defeat of his armies as the end of an aberration, the French see it as the beginning of a magnificentrebirth. French politicians are embittered and behave with a kind of offended innocence. I am not sure whether this will help them restore the nation or whether the nation will overthrow them a second time. Remembering too much is humiliating, yet if they pretend to be suffering from amnesia they will never understand how they got where they are. What you say is very true, said Hans, although we Germans would do well to remember this happened to us once and it could happen again. Quite so, said Professor Mietter, the traitors who aligned themselves with Bonaparte and now hope to unite us with Prussia are essentially doing just that, disregarding history and, why not say it, cultural differences. Esteemed Professor, Herr Levin said, are people so very different from one another? Is it necessary to dwell upon our divisions rather than? Take note, Professor Mietter interrupted, do those of you who speak blissfully of harmony, of a brotherhood of nations and who knows what else besides, believe the differences between people will disappear if you ignore them? Historical differences must be studied (but not inflated, interjected Hans), studied, Herr Hans, taken into account one by one so as to create realistic borders, not in order to play at recklessly suppressing them or moving them around willy-nilly. This is how Europe is behaving, as though we had all agreed to rush ahead without looking back. Allow me to point out, moreover, that under the old regime, our dukedoms, principalities and cities enjoyed greater freedom and autonomy. True, Hans retorted, straightening up in his chair, they had so much autonomy they never stopped fighting over who should rule. Gentlemen, declared Álvaro, this reminds me of Spain in the Middle Ages. Is that such a bad thing? asked Frau Pietzine, curious about the Middle Ages or about Álvaro de Urquijo. Not bad, he replied, far worse. I adore Spain! Frau Pietzine sighed, such a warm country! My dear Madame, said Álvaro, have no fear, you will get to know it better. Herr Hans, ProfessorMietter went on, what puzzles me is that you speak a great deal about individual freedoms yet resist the idea of nationalism as an expression of a people's individuality. That remains to be seen, said Hans, sometimes I think nationalism is another way of suppressing the individual. Ahem, an interesting thought, asserted Herr Levin. I am simply saying, the professor insisted, that if Prussia had done everything in its power to stop the advance of the Revolution, the French would never have invaded us. And I am telling you, Hans retorted, that we merely chose the wrong kind of invasion; we should have allowed ourselves to be invaded by French ideas, not the French army.
Seeing Professor Mietter take a deep breath in order to reply, Sophie held out a plate of warm sago to him and said: Monsieur Hans, please tell us more. Yes, Hans went on, we were betrayed and humiliated by Napoleon. Yet today we Germans rule ourselves and, oddly enough, having expelled the invaders it is our own government that oppresses us, is it not? My dear Monsieur Hans, interjected Herr Gottlieb, you must take into account that for twenty long years we have endured the humiliation of watching French troops march by, install themselves along the Rhine, cross Thuringia, capture Dresden--incidentally, my child, has your brother written to you? He hasn't? And yet he complains we never go to see him! Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the troops, they occupied Berlin and even Vienna, my dear Monsieur Hans, Prussia was nearly obliterated, how could you not expect a violent reaction? Let us not forget, my dear Monsieur Gottlieb, said Hans, that it was our very own princes who. I haven't forgotten, Herr Gottlieb interrupted, I haven't forgotten, still, I sincerely hope that one day the Prussians will avenge all those outrages. Don't say that, Father, protested Sophie. Voilà ma pensée, declared Herr Gottlieb, raising his arms aloft and sinking from view behind the wings of his armchair. We are quite capable of bringing about the destruction of Europe ourselves, without any help from Napoleon, saidHans pensively. Indeed, I have just come from Berlin, Monsieur, and can I assure you I do not care one bit for the young people's eagerness for war. I wish our politics were more English and we had fewer Prussian policemen. Don't be frivolous, retorted Professor Mietter irately, those policemen are there to defend both you and me. They have never even addressed me, Hans said sarcastically. Messieurs, Sophie intervened, Messieurs, calm yourselves, there is still some tea left and it would be a shame to waste it. Elsa, dear, would you ...
In the round mirror, Hans saw Sophie talking to Herr Levin, and he turned his attention to them. Monsieur Levin, Sophie said, you look rather pensive, tell us, what opinion do you have of our favourite monster? Ahem, said Herr Levin, none in particular, that is, well. Let us admit that among other things, ahem, worthy of mention, he introduced a certain civic equality, did he not? We quite understand, interrupted Professor Mietter with a scowl, I wonder what the Torah has to say about civic equality? My dear Professor, Sophie urged, that is not a joking matter. Then Álvaro said: Since we are on the subject, what does our charming hostess think of the matter? Hear, hear, agreed Professor Mietter, we are all dying to know. My dear, you are surrounded! declared Frau Pietzine. Herr Gottlieb's whiskers bristled with anticipation. Frau Levin stopped sipping her tea. Hans glanced back at the mirror, eyes open wide. What I think, Messieurs, Sophie began, and I am aware that compared to you all I am an ignoramus when it comes to politics, is that the failures of a revolution needn't make us regress historically. Perhaps I go too far in my conjectures, but you have all read Lucinde have you not? And do you not consider this slim volume a legitimate product of revolutionary aspirations? My dear Mademoiselle, said Professor Mietter, that book is not about politics at all! Lieber Professor, Sophie smiled, shrugging her shoulders delightfully in order to soften their disagreement,indulge me for a moment, and let us pretend that it is, that Lucinde is a deeply political novel, because it speaks not of matters of state but of people's lives, the new intimacy of people's lives. Can there be any greater revolution than that of social behaviour? Professor Mietter sighed: What bores the Schlegel brothers are. And how stupid their railings against Protestant rationalism. The younger brother has proved to be as insignificant as his aphorisms. And as for his elder brother, the poor man can think of nothing more interesting than to translate Shakespeare. But Hans, overwhelmed, had turned away from the mirror. So, you are an admirer of Schlegel, Mademoiselle? he asked in a hushed voice. Not of Schlegel himself, replied Sophie, well, that depends. I adore his novel, the world he evokes. You have no idea, Hans whispered, how profoundly we agree. Sophie lowered her gaze and began shifting the teacups around. Moreover, Sophie went on, seeing that her father and Professor Mietter had begun a separate conversation, I think Schlegel has become like Schiller--he is terrified of the present. In fact, if those two had their way I would be too busy trying on dresses even to discuss their work. My dear friends, Herr Gottlieb suddenly announced, standing up, I hope you enjoy the remainder of the evening. Then he walked over to the clock on the wall, which said ten o'clock sharp. He wound it up as he did every evening at the same time. He gave a nod and retired to bed.
A while later, realising he should not be the last to leave, Hans rose from his chair. Bertold went to fetch his hat and coat. Hans bowed to the other guests, his eyes remaining fixed on Professor Mietter. Sophie, who seemed more spirited since her father's departure, went over to say goodbye. Mademoiselle Gottlieb, said Hans, please do not think I am being polite when I say that, thanks to you, I have enjoyed a delightful evening. It was very kind of you to ask me to your salon, and I hopemy outspokenness will not result in me being exiled. On the contrary, my dear Monsieur Hans, Sophie replied, it is I who must thank you. Today's discussion was one of the most lively and interesting we have had, and I suspect this is partly due to your presence. Your sympathy overwhelms me, Hans said, overstepping the mark with his flirtatiousness. Have no fear, Sophie retorted, putting him in his place, next Friday I shall be more disagreeable and less indulgent. Mademoiselle Gottlieb, said Hans, clearing his throat. (Yes? she asked abruptly.) If you will allow me, I would like, well, I would like to applaud your brilliant comments on Schlegel and Lucinde. Why, thank you, Monsieur Hans, Sophie smiled and rubbed one side of her hand with the other, you will have noticed that, while I try not to contradict my guests, when asked what I think of Napoleon, I am hard pressed to agree with the restorationists. Nevertheless, my dear friend (when he heard the word friend Hans's heart skipped a beat), if I may be so bold as to clarify something concerning the French Revolution (please, do go ahead, said he), I assume we both defended it this evening because of our loyalty to certain convictions, but in order to remain true to my own beliefs I must remind you of something you did not mention. Of the many things for which we could reproach the Jacobins, one is their horror at French women demanding the right to participate in public life. This is why I said that we need an intimate revolution as well as political change. I hope you agree with me that the natural outcome of such a revolution, were it conducted properly, would be a change in public functions, allowing us women to aspire to parliament as well as needlework, although I assure you I have nothing against needlework, on the contrary I find it quite relaxing. In short, my dear Hans, I trust you do not think me fanciful, and I hope next Friday you will come up with an interesting response. Bertold! Bertold! There you are! I was beginning to think you'd run off with the gentleman'sovercoat! Goodnight, and take care, Hans, it is dark on the stairs. Goodbye, thank you, goodbye, goodbye.
As he made his way in a daze towards the front door of the Gottlieb residence, Hans heard his name being called from the staircase and stopped. Álvaro's eyes flashed as he passed between two patches of darkness. My dear Hans, he said clapping him on the back, don't you think the night is too young for two gentlemen such as us to go home?
Tramping across frozen mud and dried urine, they left Stag Street behind them. The flickering gas lamps lent the market square an intermittent presence--its luminosity fluctuated the way an instrument changes chords, the gradient of the deserted cobblestones rose and fell, the ornate fountain vanished for an instant then reappeared, the Tower of the Wind became smudged. Álvaro and Hans crossed the square listening to the sound of their own footsteps. Hans was still struck by the contrast between day and night, between the colourful fruit and the yellow darkness, the throng of passers-by and this icy silence. He reflected that one of the two squares, the daytime or night-time one, was like a mirage. Gazing up, he saw St Nicholas's lopsided towers, its slanting silhouette. Álvaro stared at it and said: One of these days it is bound to topple over.
Unlike in the surrounding countryside where night falls slowly, day ends abruptly in Wandernburg, with the same alarming swiftness as that with which the shutters swing shut on the windows. The evening light is sucked away as down a drain. Then the few passers-by begin tripping over barrels outside taverns, all the carriage gear, kerbstones, loose logs, household waste. Beside each doorway bags of refuse decompose, while drawn by the stench dogs and cats gather round eating as the flies buzz overhead.
Looked at from the sky, the city is like a candle floating onwater. At its centre, the wick, is the gaslit glow of the market square. Beyond the square, darkness gains ground in an ever-widening circle. Threads of light spread out like a pattern of nerves along the remaining streets. Rising from the walls like pale creepers, the oil lamps scarcely illuminate the ground beneath them. Night in Wandernburg is not as black as a wolf 's mouth--it is what the avid wolf devours.
For a while now, on certain nights, in the streets bordering the square, avoiding the nightwatchmen, standing in the shadows, merging with the walls, someone has been waiting. Along Wool Alley, in narrow Prayer Street or at the end of Our Saviour's Alley, breathing silently, dressed in a dark flowing cape and black-brimmed hat, wearing snugly fitting gloves, arms thrust into pockets, clutching a knife in one hand and a mask and a piece of rope in the other, lurking on street corners, this someone is alert to every footstep, to the slightest sound.
And on this night, as on every night, near to the poorly lit streets where this someone is waiting, at times only a stone's throw away, the nightwatchmen pass by with their lanterns dangling on the end of poles, and each hour on the hour remove their hats, blow their horns and cry out:
Time to go home, everyone! The church bell has chimed eight, Watch over your fire and your lamps, Praise be to God! All praise!
And the drifting market square with its frozen weathervane. And beyond, the lopsided towers of St Nicholas's, the pointed steeple puncturing the edge of the moon, which goes on seeping liquid.
The drinkers crowded at the bar and sat round scratched pinetables. Hans glanced about the room, eyes darting from tankard to tankard, and was surprised when he recognised a familiar face. But isn't that? he asked. Isn't he? (You mean that fellow over there? Álvaro said.) Yes, the one with the shiny waistcoat, drinking a toast with the other two, isn't that? (The mayor? Álvaro finished his sentence for him. Yes, why? Do you know him?) No, well, someone introduced me to him at a reception a few weeks ago. (Oh, you were there, too! What a pity we didn't meet then.) Yes, it was a crashing bore, what do you suppose he's doing here at this time of night? (There's nothing unusual about it, Mayor Ratztrinker is very fond of the Central Tavern and of his beer, he always claims his aim in life is to serve the townspeople, so I imagine drinking with them until dawn is the best way of getting to know them.)
Álvaro ordered a lager. Hans preferred wheat beer. Standing side by side in the steamy warmth, the two men soon confirmed that their fellow feeling in the salon had been no accident. Now that he was on his own, Álvaro spoke at length and openly, showing a passion he concealed when in company. Like all people with a lively temperament he possessed the twin qualities of anger and tenderness. Both were evident in his excitability when he spoke. Álvaro was drawn to Hans's quiet conviction, the feeling that he knew more than he was saying. He was intrigued by Hans's way of both being and not being there, that polite frontier from which he listened with an air of being about to turn away. They spoke in a manner two men rarely succeeded in doing--without interrupting or competing with one another. Amid laughs and long draughts of his beer, glancing sideways at the mayor, Álvaro told Hans about Wandernburg's amazing history.
In actual fact, Álvaro said, it's impossible to pinpoint the exact location of Wandernburg on any map, because it has changed places all the time. It shifts so much between regionsit has become all but invisible. As this area has always been under Saxony or Prussia without either being the absolute ruler, Wandernburg developed almost exclusively as a result of land owned by the Catholic Church. From the start, the Church agreed to a few families in the region exploiting it, among them the Ratztrinkers, who own the mills and a large part of the textile industry, and the Wilderhauses. (The Wilderhauses? Hans started, the ones? ...) Yes, the family of Sophie's fiancé Rudi, apparently the Wilderhauses are direct descendants of the original princes of Wandernburg, why are you pulling that face? Seriously, they say Rudi and his brothers and sisters are the nephews and nieces of a great-great-grandson of one such prince. Besides owning a great deal of land, the Wilderhauses have relatives in the Prussian army and others in the civil service in Berlin. The fact is that these old families swore that, providing the Church gave them a part of its land, they would never accede to the demands of the Protestant princes, Saxon or Prussian. That land continues to provide their descendants with a substantial income, a divine third of which they hand over to the Church. (Very clever, said Hans, but why weren't they invaded? Why did the Protestant princes tolerate this resistance?) Probably because there was little to gain from an invasion. The landowners around here have always been highly productive as well as competent managers. I don't think anyone else would obtain such a high yield from this amount of land and livestock, which is scarcely worth going to war over. Who do you think received until recently one of the two remaining thirds of profit? The reigning Saxon prince, of course. So you see everyone came out winning--no one needed to invade anyone and there was scarcely even any need for legal wrangling. The Church held on to its property in the heart of heretic country. The Saxon princes avoided further embroilment in border conflicts and problems with the Catholic princes, andgained a certain reputation for clemency, which they used to their advantage when it suited them. And the Wandernburg oligarchs were safe from harm so long as they paid taxes to both sides, do you see? (Perfectly, said Hans. Where did you learn all this?) Business, my friend, you've no idea what you can learn when doing business (I'm still amazed you're a businessman, you don't talk like one), hold on, hold on, keep in mind two things: la primera, my dear Hans, is that not all businessmen are as stupid as businessmen seem, and number two, my friend, is a tale that begins in England and which I'll tell you another day.
And how do you get along with all these families? asked Hans. Oh, marvellously! replied Álvaro. I secretly despise them and they pretend not to be watching me. In fact, we're being watched at this very moment, pues que les den bien por el culo! (Come again? said Hans. I didn't catch that.) Nothing, it doesn't matter. We smile at one another and do business together. I'm aware that some families have tried to find other distributors for their cloths. But we are the cheapest, and so for the moment they are better off putting up with me to be able to do business with my English partners. (And why aren't you in England?) Well, the reply is a sad story that I'll also leave for another day. The fact is they need our London distributors. After Napoleon's defeat and the end of the blockade, they had no English contacts here in Wandernburg, and they saw in my partners a chance to expand their market. They are hardly in a position to choose; this is a tiny region, far from the Atlantic, which does little trade with the North Sea or Baltic ports. Quite simply they need us. Be patient, Herr Mayor! murmured Álvaro, raising his tankard towards Ratztrinker's table. The mayor, who was out of earshot, responded with a grimace.
One thing I fail to understand, said Hans, is why the Church owned land in this region? What was a Catholic principality doing in Protestant territory? This city becomes more bafflingby the minute. Yes, said Álvaro, it surprised me at first, too. You see, during the Thirty Years' War these lands were virtually on the border between Saxony and Brandenburg, you might say they were Saxon by the skin of their teeth. The Catholic army invaded the region and used it as an enclave to disrupt the enemy communications. Thus, inadvertently, Wandernburg became a bastion of the Catholic League at the heart of the Protestant Union. At the Peace of Westphalia it was declared an ecclesiastical principality, waiter, two more tankards, what do you mean no! Never say no to the last round, no, I insist, you can pay next time, or don't you intend to visit another tavern with me? What was I saying? Yes, and this became the Principality of Wandernburg, which is still its official name. Remember that in Westphalia princes were free to choose the religion of their state, a deplorable decision, I know. And it seems the ruling prince here at the time was a Catholic. Apparently, in order to save the city from destruction, his parents collaborated with the Counter-Reformation troops. That is how Wandernburg came to be, and still is, Catholic (very interesting, said Hans, I'd never heard that story, I didn't even know Wandernburg was an ecclesiastical principality, I've traveled past it a few times, but), I'm sure you have, like everyone else, I came here for very different reasons, otherwise I'd never, well, let's leave that for another day. Yes, and still more strange--the situation has remained almost unchanged in two centuries. This was only a small region, surrounded by enemies and one of hundreds of states scattered throughout Germany, and the reunification of the empire was never going to be determined by a few hectares. (And what about Napoleon? Didn't everything change under the French?) That's the interesting thing! Since Saxony sided with Napoleon, his troops carried out a peaceful occupation of Wandernburg, through which they passed unimpeded on their way to and from the Prussian front. In return for servicesrendered, Napoleon's brother decided to respect the Catholic authority in Wandernburg. But when the emperor was overthrown, Prussia occupied part of Saxony, and Wandernburg ended up a few miles inside Prussian territory. Once again it became a border territory, only on the other side this time. And so, my friend, a toast! We're Prussians now, coño! and should declare it from the rooftops. Let's become inflamed with Prussian zeal! (And clinking tankards with that foreigner, Hans felt at home in Wandernburg for the first time.)
Álvaro laughed: Now it's Prussia which receives its share of the tribute, and that's why it respects Wandernburg's exceptional status. The Wildherhauses, Ratztrinkers and other landowners continue to declare themselves Catholics, and as defenders of the Church uphold its many privileges, while at the same time declaring themselves tolerant, interdenominational and Prussian before the King of Prussia, as vehemently as they once claimed they were Saxons, supporters of the French or what have you. This is why some descendants of exiled Lutheran families have returned, like Professor Mietter. Prior to the Congress of Vienna the authorities and the press would never have treated a man like the professor with such respect, but now it is politically advantageous (I don't suppose Saxony will stand by and do nothing, Hans said), well, Saxony has made no moves as yet, I imagine they don't expect the borders established at Vienna to hold for very long either, the way nothing does in Germany. That, I guarantee, would be no problem for the Wandernburg authorities. They would simply throw themselves into the arms of the corresponding Saxon prince, bemoan the atrocious torments they suffered at the hands of his Prussian enemy, declare a public holiday and receive the new prince with true Saxon pomp and ceremony. And so it will be evermore, until this land falls into the sea or Germany is unified. And for now neither event seems likely. I hope I haven't bored you with my disquisition!(Disquisition? Where did you get that word from?) Well, in all modesty, I also know the word homily. (You sound like a Saxon grandmother!) So, as you see, Wandernburg's borders change from one day to the next (aha, Hans said, jokingly, maybe that's why I get lost whenever I walk around it. Álvaro looked at him, suddenly serious), so I'm not the only one, you also have the feeling sometimes that (that what? That the streets ... move?) Yes, yes! I've always been too embarrassed to mention this to anyone, but I often leave home well in advance in case something changes place unexpectedly. And I thought I was the only one! Your health!
The alcohol was beginning to slur Hans's speech. He put a hand on Álvaro's shoulder. Er, sorrry, he said to Álvaro, 'd'I step on your toe? Paardon me, y'know, ev' sin' we beggan talkin' I been m-meanin t'ask you how ccome you spea' ssuch good Sherman? Álvaro slumped suddenly. That, he replied, is the story I didn't want to tell you. I was married for many years to a German woman. Ulrike. She was born about three leagues from here. She loved this place. The scenery. The customs. I don't know. Those were her childhood memories. That's why we came to live here. Ulrike. Many years. Who could possibly leave now?
Hans contemplated the frothy remains on the rim of his beer mug, the hollow ears of the handles, all the things one looks at when everything has been said. Then he whispered, When? Two years ago, said Álvaro. Of tuberculosis.
Álvaro and Hans drank up their beers. The waiters were wiping down the tables with the reproachful air they have when it is time to close. Hey, Hans stammered, aren't there a lot of wwidowed people in Wwandernburg? Sophie's father, Fffrau Pietzzzine, Proffessor Mietter even, perhaps. It's no coincidence, Álvaro replied, border cities are soothing, they make you think there's another world nearby, I don't know how to describe it. Travelers come here, people who have lost their way or wereheaded somewhere else, lone wolves. And they all end up staying here, Hans. You'll get used to it. I don' thin' sso, said Hans, I'm p-passing through. You'll get used to it, Álvaro repeated, I've been passing through here for over ten years now.
Hans was perched on his trunk, legs apart, trying not to drip water onto his bare feet, shaving in front of the mirror he had placed on the floor, the washbasin on one side and on the other a towel draped over the back of a chair. He liked this way of shaving, leaning as though over a tiny pond, because he felt it helped him to think--when you get up, especially if you are a night owl, your brain needs a bit of a shake-up. Sometimes it feels as if there aren't enough hours in the day, Hans reflected. He had woken up in good spirits and eager to carry out all the tasks he had set himself. He would finish the book he was halfway through over lunch, go to see the organ grinder and suggest they dine together, meet Álvaro for coffee then follow Sophie a little, if, as on other occasions, he managed to bump into her out strolling with a friend, emerging from a shop with Elsa or on her way to pay someone a visit. Sitting clutching the razor, face streaked with foam, still only half-dressed, Hans had the impression all this could be done in a trice.
His reverie was interrupted by shouts from downstairs. Considering the day officially started, Hans dried his face, replaced the watercolour on its hook, got a splinter in his foot, pulled it out cursing, finished dressing, and went out into the corridor. The shouts continued. Lisa was trying to get into the kitchen, while her mother and the suspended hams blocked the way. I don't care what you say, Frau Zeit exclaimed, you can't fool me, there's at least fifteen or ten groschen missing. Mother, Lisa argued, can't you see I bought an extra pound of beef as well as more tomatoes? Of course I can see, Frau Zeit retorted, and I'm wondering who asked you to buy all those tomatoes,the meat doesn't matter, what's left over can be salted, but who do you think is going to eat a whole basketful of tomatoes? And anyway, a pound of meat couldn't cost that much, do you think I'm stupid? Mother, replied Lisa, I told you the prices went up this morning by one loth in seven. We'll see about that! her mother protested. I'll go to the market myself tomorrow, and I warn you. Do as you please, Lisa interrupted her mother in turn, if you don't believe me you can go and see for yourself tomorrow and the day after, and every day if you want. I'm not interested in the butcher or in tomatoes or in arguing with you. But child, Frau Zeit replied, seizing Lisa by the wrists, even if it's true, don't you see what things cost? When will you learn? If they put the price up overnight you have to haggle like the rest of us, do you hear? Haggle! And stop giving yourself such airs and graces.
Lisa was about to respond when she glimpsed Hans, who was standing motionless in the corridor, listening. She turned away at once, pretending she hadn't seen him. Hans's curiosity got the better of his embarrassment and he stood there without moving. Lisa went on countering her mother's admonishments with short, sharp ripostes. Notwithstanding her maternal authority, Frau Zeit was getting the worst of the argument. The two women shifted position, so that they were almost facing Hans. In the glow of copper and tin from the kitchen, he could see the creases spread over Frau Zeit's face each time she raised her voice. And the scars, blotches and cuts on Lisa's hands as she gesticulated. For an instant the contrast in their silhouettes, beauty and posture was lost, so that to Hans they became one and the same woman at two different moments, two identical women of different ages. Then he walked away from the kitchen.
Hans had to wait until Thomas burst in before he was able to recapture the light-heartedness he had felt when he got up. Itwas impossible to resist the boy's tireless enthusiasm, his instinctive breed of optimism. Thomas said good morning to Hans absent-mindedly, asked him whether he liked elks, snatched his cup of coffee and hid it behind the couch, spun round in circles, arms akimbo, one leg in the air, and pelted down the corridor. Hans got to his feet, at which Thomas, thinking he was about to give chase, tore up the staircase. Not wishing to disappoint the child, Hans raced after him, pretending to be an angry ogre and bellowing for his cup of coffee, which he had already retrieved from the floor. When Thomas reached the end of the corridor on the second floor and was thrust up against the window, he turned to face his persecutor, his face suddenly so contorted, his eyes filled with such dread that for a split second Hans really believed himself an ogre. He was about to ruffle the boy's hair so as to reassure him, when Thomas burst out laughing, and Hans realised the boy was the better actor. Taken aback, he glanced out of the window and noticed it was raining.
Thomas, you rascal! roared Frau Zeit with the redoubled rage of one who has scolded their other child to no avail. Thomas, I told you to come down at once and finish your homework! For the love of God, you haven't even done the first exercise! They ought to start opening the school on Saturdays! Oh, and you can forget about going tobogganing! The boy looked at Hans, regained his composure, then shrugged as though acknowledging their game was over. Head sunk on his chest, he walked towards the staircase. The two of them went down in silence. When they had reached the bottom of the stairs, Thomas let out two small explosions. Furious, his father strode out from behind the counter, grabbed his son by the ear and dragged him down the passageway towards their apartment. When he returned, flustered, he said to Hans: As you can see, we're just like any other family. Of course, Hans replied, don't worry. The innkeeper plunged his hand into the pocket of his saggingtrousers and said: By the way, since you are staying on, and in view of your, well, your late-night habits, I'm giving you this bunch of keys. Please don't lose it. And always take it with you when you go out at night.
Midday was drowning. Umbrellas vied for space on the narrow pavement. Hans's boots splashed in the puddles distorting his footsteps. Throwing up a spray of muddy water, carriages drove past him like a temptation. In the market square, the vendors were packing up their stalls. Hans glimpsed the organ grinder in his usual spot, hunched over, absorbed in the music, making the square turn. Drops of water dripped from his beard, sticking out from beneath his hood. Seeing him there, serene, Hans reconciled himself to the gloomy day--so long as the old man continued at the heart of Wandernburg, the city would be in order. As always, Franz was the first to sense his arrival--he pricked up his black ears, lifted his head from the floor, stretched his legs and shook his coat.
How goes your day? Hans enquired, squeezing Franz's muzzle while the dog squirmed. Beautiful, replied the old man, have you noticed the way the mist sparkles? The mist? No, Hans confessed, I haven't. It's been changing colour all morning, the organ grinder went on. Do you like the mist? Me? Hans said, surprised, not especially, I don't think. Franz and I enjoy it, don't we, old rascal? the organ grinder said. And your public? Hans asked, gesturing to the dish in a fit of pragmatism he felt rather ashamed of. I mean, did you have much of one? Not many, replied the organ grinder, enough to pay for supper, you will come won't you? Hans nodded, wondering whether to offer to buy the wine, for the old man usually took offence if he suspected Hans brought food to the cave in an attempt to stock him up rather than as a mark of courtesy. The old man went on: Lamberg says he'll stop by for a while after supper. That boy worries me, he works himself half to death in the factory andhe doesn't laugh much, it's a bad sign when someone drinks a lot and doesn't laugh. Let's try to cheer him up tonight, shall we? You can recount your travels to him, I'll play a lively tune, and with a bit of luck Reichardt will tell a few dirty jokes. And you, rascal, have you been practising any new barks?
Fearing the weather might worsen, Hans went to talk to a coachman about taking him as far as the bridge that evening. The coachman told him the carriages had all been full that day and he couldn't promise him a seat in one with a top. Hans said in that case he would reserve a seat in a tilbury without a top and would bring an umbrella. The coachman hemmed and hawed, then said he wasn't sure there were any seats available in a tilbury either. Hans gazed at him fixedly, sighed, and handed him a couple of coins. The coachman immediately remembered a possible vacancy in the last carriage.
On his way back to the inn, where he was planning to read for a while, Hans strolled along the broad, acacia-lined pavements of King's Parade, where the carriages rolled along with their polished wheels, sturdy horses and liveried coachmen. Among the calèches with folding tops, the gleaming landaus and the elegant cabriolets, Hans could not help remarking a carriage drawn by two white horses speeding along at a ceremonial trot. It took Hans a moment to transfer his gaze from the outside to the inside of the carriage--he started when he made out Sophie's profile shrinking back from the rain, and next to her the outline of a hat. Sophie jerked her head away from the window and Hans heard a voice asking if she were feeling well.
The carriage turned off King's Parade. At the end of Border Street, a figure was walking towards Archway. As the coach passed the figure turned around--Father Pigherzog, wearing a shovel hat and a cloak on top of his cassock, folded his umbrella and bowed in greeting. Inside the red velvet-lined cabin, Sophie remained motionless while her companion straightenedup in order to return the gesture. Guten Tag, mein lieber Herr Wilderhaus! cried Father Pigherzog, his head revolving as the coach rolled by. And then he added, a little too late perhaps: God bless you! As the priest opened up his umbrella again, his hat fell onto the ground and got muddy. Annoyed, he walked up Archway clasping it between thumb and finger.
The sacristan was polishing the holy vessels. Peace be with you, my son, said Father Pigherzog as he entered the sacristy. The sacristan helped him off with his cloak, left his hat to soak in water and finished arranging the relics. How did the collection go, my son? asked the priest. The sacristan handed him the small metal box they referred to as the vessel of the divine will. God be with you, Father Pigherzog said, you may go now.
When he was alone, Father Pigherzog glanced about the sacristy and sighed. He looked up at the clock and sat down beside one of the lamps, transferring one of the piles of books on the table to his lap. He put the book of sacraments and the Misal Romano back. He pored over Pius V's catechism for a moment, slipped a bookmark between its pages and placed it with the others. A large volume entitled Notes on the State of Souls remained in his lap. In it Father Pigherzog took note of various matters relating to Church business: details of each family's practice and observance of Easter rituals; his personal impressions of parishioners, including brief reports about them; comments on and consequences of the weekly liturgy; shortages and possible requirements of the parish, as well as any significant contributions or donations; and lastly a section in which he wrote less frequently, addressed to "Your Excellency" and concerning the "Balance of the quarterly accounts of the lands given in concession by the Holy Mother Church", which the priest would check before copying out the figures and posting them to the Archbishop. All of this Father Pigherzog woulddo in his neat script, dividing the subjects under headings.
He opened the Notes on the State of Souls at the most recent entry and browsed his comments. He took his quill, leisurely dipped it in the ink pot, wrote out the date and began his task.
... who I am concerned about is Frau H J de Pietzine, whose trials and tribulations we have remarked upon on previous occasions. A host of fears confound her conscience and darken her soul, the salvation of which will depend in large part upon her willingness to embrace penitence, the exercise of which she is inclined to observe with far less enthusiasm than the act of prayer. A woman of faith and family condition should not make an exhibition of herself by attending frivolous social gatherings of every kind. Address this tendency at next confessionals.
... as is clear from the previous entry, the excellent Herr Wilderhaus, the younger, whose nobility and generosity towards this humble parish we profoundly appreciate, has made an understandable choice, attendant upon certain of Fräulein Gottlieb's virtues, virtues which, dare I say, in recent years have been unbecomingly eclipsed by xxxxxx a degree of rebelliousness and frivolity. Nothing, I hasten to add, which marriage, domestic bliss and the duties of motherhood cannot redress. Send sacristan to Wilderhaus Hall with a fresh letter on the parish's headed paper thanking them again for their pious donation. Suggest to Herr Gottlieb a private interview with his daughter.
... having thus abandoned her catechism classes. Her renunciation of past heresies is no less praiseworthy, although it remains to be seen whether this is permanent. The case of her husband is far more arduous, A N Levin, who not only refuses to renounce his xxxxxx Semitic profanation and Arian deviance, but confounds his wife with spurious theosophies ranging from an adoptionism that blasphemes against the indivisible essence of the Father and the Son, to an adulterated hotchpotch of pre-Nicene Christology and Brahmin pantheism. From what I have gathered thus far, his wife was on the point of being persuadedby this pantheistic argument. It was necessary for me to explain to her that such a system leads to spiritual indifference, for if God were equally present in all things, it would make no difference if we paid attention to clouds and rocks or the Holy Spirit. I was obliged to remind her that not everything is God but that God is everything. Keep Frau Levin on her guard. Also request that she consult her husband about the transactions on the following pages.
... with unheard-of impudence. Attempt to find out in the corresponding Bible class. Upbraid the teacher in question.
... of these encouraging signs. Taking his work as an example, devote Sunday's collective prayer to the supremacy of self-denial.
... not to mention gluttony. Give him a final warning under penalty of banishment from dining hall.
... impure thoughts of an alarmingly frequent and xxxxxx vivid nature. Insist upon penitence. Speak to his tutors.
... collected in our vessel of the divine will, which has had such a blessed impact on our humble parish and on the absolution of souls, I find myself duty bound to inform you that this amount diminished by seventeen per cent last month from an average of half a thaler per parishioner to the current eight groschen per parishioner at Sunday Mass, amounting to an overall reduction in our revenue of fifteen louis or twenty-two ducats. I therefore beseechingly implore Your Excellency to consider and find a way of compensating for this loss, if only in small part. Lastly, owing to a reduction in productivity, the tithes are to remain unchanged until the third quarter, at which time they will be increased to three and a quarter thalers per taxpaying peasant. I hereby attest to the above, and, as your humble servant, await Your Excellency's next visit in order that I may kiss your hands, discuss these matters in person and celebrate a pontifical Mass in all its solemnity and beauty.
I'm so glad you brought up Fichte, Monsieur Hans (Sophie remarked, stroking the inside of her teacup handle, almost introducing her finger into it, then pulling it back again, whileHans watched, becoming increasingly troubled), because if I remember rightly last Friday none of us mentioned him during our debate about this country. Professor Mietter, so do you not think (she said, changing the tone and direction of her voice, her fingers wandering from the handle to the outside of her teacup, caressing its rippled surface as though she were reading Braille) that it might be appropriate to consider him for a moment? My dear young man (Professor Mietter, who had hitherto been dominating the conversation, addressed Hans with his fingers firmly clasped in front of him), I notice you show an interest in certain philosophers, may I ask what you have studied? (Sophie took her hands away from the teacup and they hung there for a moment, like ears.) Me? Philosophy (Hans replied, but not before hesitating and rubbing his hands together in what Sophie interpreted as a gesture of unease). Ah, philosophy (said Professor Mietter unclasping his fingers and leaving them pointing upwards), how interesting, and where exactly did you study? At Jena (Hans replied, hesitating once more, placing his hands on his thighs as if to say: That's all).
From what I know of Fichte (said Herr Gottlieb without taking his pipe out of his mouth) I agree with his ideas about Germany, although I have heard he was virtually an atheist. Father (said Sophie, bringing her hands closer together), what an interesting ring the word virtually has! For Fichte, the "I" (observed Herr Levin, whose hands were usually motionless, as though bound together) is a divine category. In my view (said Hans, smoothing his trousers, perhaps in order to soften his disagreement with a gesture of false modesty), no "I" can be divine, except, of course, if it believes itself partly to be He. (Sophie's forefinger moved back to the inside of the cup handle.) Ah, but (Herr Levin reflected, pointing to an imaginary spot on the table) the most important thing would be the We that is beneath this He. My dear (said Frau Pietzine,dropping her needlework), may I have a little more cake?
At the beginning of the session, Sophie had announced that Rudi Wilderhaus had just sent her a message in which he asked all the other guests to excuse his absence and promised he would be there without fail the following Friday. Hans had deduced that this was therefore his last chance to impress Sophie before her fiancé arrived on the scene. And so he threw himself into the debate about Fichte. I am quite drawn, he said, to his ideas on the individual, but his theory of Germany leaves me cold. If each of us were a country, then every people would be a country made up of countries, would it not? But surely no individual, however sacred he thinks himself, can embody a country or express its fundamental nature. (Tell us, protested Herr Levin, do Bach and Beethoven not represent our nation in the most favourable light? Ah, touché! Professor Mietter exclaimed, trying to look amused but sounding piqued. But Hans was talking only for Sophie now.) No, I don't mean that. If a poet or musician succeeds in personifying a country's sensibility it will always be coincidental, a historical phenomenon rather than a metaphysical one. Or do you really believe Bach composed from his Germanness? This is precisely why I am suspicious of Fichte. How can he espouse a radical form of subjectivity and from it construct an entire nation? I wonder what the devil he means when he speaks of the German ideal? Who exemplifies it? And who is incompatible with it? In his discourses, he explains how German uniqueness was a result of migration, while the other Teutonic tribes stayed in their places of origin. What amazes me is that Fichte acknowledges this and then has the audacity to assert that resettlement wasn't really so significant, and that ethnic characteristics predominate over place, etc etc. You yourself, Professor (Hans was speaking almost without drawing breath, and the professor, unable to find a natural break in his rapid monologue, turned away as though he had not heard his name) have traveled and are therefore awareof how outward changes give rise to inwards ones. History shows that peoples are as changeable as rivers. Fichte describes them as if they were made of marble, solid blocks that can be moved or chiselled but remain essentially unchanged. He underestimates the importance of the mixing of the Germanic lineage with the conquered peoples, and as if that weren't enough he insinuates that all our problems, our age-old problems, aren't really German, but foreign. What nonsense! What is he trying to tell us? Whom is he suggesting we flee from in order to avoid contamination? (Herr Levin coughed twice.) I have learnt everything I know from traveling, that is, from associating with foreigners. Very well, let us suppose Fichte's intention was to restore our faith in ourselves after the French occupation or whatever. Much obliged to you Herr Fichte for having renewed our Germanic spirit, but now our optimism has been restored, let us discover common principles not Germanic tribes.
Hans finally fell silent, like the others. It only lasted a moment. Sophie had difficulty concealing the impression Hans's words had made on her. And in particular she was unable to work out whether this impression had been philosophical or of some other nature quite unrelated to Fichte. But at once the habitual noises, voices and gestures resumed as a teaspoon clinked against a cup, someone asked for sugar, and someone else stood up and asked to use the water closet.
Rubbing his knuckles, Álvaro argued that Germany was the only country in Europe where the Enlightenment and feudalism had been equally influential. He went on to say that in his opinion (and Professor Mietter considered this idea too republican) the nature of German government was directly at odds with German thought. And this contradiction explained why the Germans were so bold in their thinking and so submissive in their obedience. The professor returned to Fichte. He argued that precisely because of Germany's feudal roots, the only wayforward was to find a cornerstone upon which to build a united Germany, and this cornerstone could only be Prussia. At this point, Frau Pietzine (to everyone's amazement) stopped embroidering and quoted Fichte. The quotation was not philosophical, but it was Fichte, and it referred to the physical education of German youth. Ah, gymnastics! Hans tried to sound ironical. That great manifestation of culture! Professor Mietter defended physical discipline as an expression of spiritual control. Indeed, I myself exercise every morning (he confessed with a flash of coquetry). And rest assured, my dear Professor, Sophie said, you look splendid, you are quite right to keep yourself in shape, take no notice of Monsieur Hans. Vielen Dank, mein liebes Fräulein, Professor Mietter replied contentedly, the thing is some people think they are going to stay young for ever.
The topics alternated between the trivial and the lofty. However, each time they went back to discussing philosophy, neither Professor Mietter nor Hans was prepared to yield an inch. The professor leant back in his chair and folded his legs, as if to make clear he had experience and calm on his side, while Hans had nothing but unease and uncertainty. Hans leant forward in his chair and straightened up, as if to suggest that strength and conviction were his, while the professor could offer only cynicism and world-weariness. As the two men continued debating, Herr Gottlieb's whiskers vanished behind plumes of pipe smoke. Herr Levin would tentatively take sides depending on the topic, and then contradict himself. Frau Levin did not say a word, but watched Hans in a vaguely hostile way. Álvaro scarcely spoke, but when he did it was nearly always to back Hans, either because he agreed with him or because the professor's authority irritated him. He was surprised to see Elsa the maid stop tapping her foot and give the appearance of listening intently. Sophie quoted authors, books, ideas, then withdrew discreetly, making a great effort not to seem to takeeither of their sides, so that both men felt they could respond freely. And yet their opinions overwhelmed her, and a few times she was tempted to take the floor and challenge them both. Some afternoons, thought Sophie, pouring the tea, one feels the urge to behave in an unladylike way.
If I had to choose a national discourse, said Hans, then I would opt for Herder, who says that without history we are nothing a priori, don't you agree? A country ought not to ask what it is, but when and why. Professor Mietter responded by comparing Kant and Fichte's ideas of nationhood in order to show that, rather than betraying Kant, Fichte had taken his argument a step further. Hans said that in contrast to his views on Fichte, he liked Kant better when he spoke of countries rather than individuals. Every society, said Hans, needs order, and Kant proposes a very intelligent one. Yet every citizen also needs a measure of chaos, which Kant refuses. In my view, a free nation would be, let us say, a group of chaotic elements that respects the order containing them. In my view, Professor Mietter retorted, Fichte's national aspiration is invaluable in the present situation (and what situation is that, Professor? asked Hans), you know full well. Germany cannot go on choosing between foreign occupation or disintegration. It is time we took a step forward and decided our own fate. (But our fate, Hans argued, also depends on that of the other European countries, you cannot define any nation without redefining the continent.) Are you saying this because of your Napoleon, gnädiger Hans? (No, Hans parried, your Holy Alliance!)
Sophie felt excited and troubled in equal measure--this was the first time she had seen a guest seriously stand up to the professor, and she could not bring herself to intervene since she knew she would be incapable of expressing some of Hans's ideas as eloquently herself, partly owing to her father's presence, but also because of her neutral role as host. This neutrality wasbeginning to strike her as suspect, and the greater her misgivings, the more her slender hands moved hither and thither, the more she devoted herself to passing round the canapés, jellies, pastries and hot chocolate. In the meantime, surprised that Sophie did not censure Hans's impertinences, Professor Mietter continued to argue without growing angry, and indeed hoping she did not do so, in order that he could go on refuting them.
My dear friend, the professor said, should I remind you that without strong nations there can be no satisfactory international law? And I, my dear Professor, said Hans, must insist that I cannot help feeling much more like a citizen of Kant's Europe than of Fichte's Germany. Your feelings are your own affair, said the professor, the fact is that federal republicanism did not bring peace to Europe, only power struggles. Quite the contrary, Hans retorted, we have had wars when federalism failed. Kant envisaged a society of free states, which is incompatible with imperialism. The problem is each European treaty is a signature on the next war. Europe, my dear young man, said Professor Mietter, is founded on a common religion; that is the only basis for lasting unity. Do you not see that denying that is counter-productive? It surprises me (Álvaro declared, trying to tear his eyes away from Elsa's ankle) to hear a Lutheran speak in this way. I am a Lutheran, Professor Mietter bridled, but first and foremost I am a Christian, a Christian and a German. Gentlemen, ahem, Herr Levin ventured, if you will allow me, it is trade, not morality, that guarantees unity, that is, if Europe traded more it could not allow itself to go to war, you see, no, not so much cake, please, that's enough, thank you. Agreed, said Hans, but such changes cannot take place independently of a common political policy, for if we over-emphasise the identity of every nation, there will continue to be wars to decide who controls the markets. It is also possible to educate the economy, wouldn't you agree? Yes, replied Herr Levin, not forgetting thateducation depends on the economy. Economic wisdom, Professor Mietter insisted, forms part of nation building, and there Fichte hit the nail right on the head. Kant hit the nail on the head, Hans replied, when he wrote Lasting Peace. That's a good one! (said the professor, devouring a canapé, without clarifying whether he meant the canapé or Kant.) For your information, young man, the utopia of peace was invented over five hundred years ago by a man named Dante. But Dante thought peace depended on a political elite, Hans objected, almost exactly like what we have today! Kant thought law should be the guarantor of peace, a law established by a union of equal states. Entrusting peace to a handful of leaders is to legitimise despotism. Ahem, my belief (Herr Levin asserted, evading the caress his wife tried to give him by way of a warning) is that we occasionally get caught up in abstraction, that is, with all due respect, don't you think peace is related to wealth? But that, Hans nodded, also takes us onto moral ground, for unless wealth is shared there will never be peace--poverty is a potential cause of conflict. Hear, hear! said Álvaro. Gentlemen, please, Professor Mietter sighed, let us not be ingenuous. Peace and war seek to achieve the same aim, which is to decide who rules, only the former does so by different means we like to think of as peaceful. That's all there is to it. Ahem, perhaps, Herr Levin demurred, there is another reality to war, which is that the cost often outweighs its benefits, even for the victor, so that an impartial evaluation of the cost of war should be enough for us to renounce it.
Gentlemen, said Herr Gottlieb rising from his seat, please feel free to continue. I have a few matters to attend to in my study. This has been a most stimulating evening, as always.
Hans had the impression that as he said the word stimulating Herr Gottlieb had looked at him. Herr Gottlieb wound up the clock, which said ten o'clock sharp. He gestured to Bertold to light the candles, kissed his daughter on the forehead, bowedin a way that sent his whiskers flying, and vanished down the corridor. Finding herself alone with her guests, Sophie took a deep breath--now she could speak her mind without having to worry so much. Just when she was getting ready to join in the debate, Frau Pietzine intercepted her to take her leave as well, grasping her by the hands and whispering a few words no one else could hear. Sophie nodded, glancing sideways at the group made up of Professor Mietter, Hans, Álvaro and the Levins. No sooner had Elsa fetched Frau Pietzine's blue scarf and ribboned bonnet than Sophie hastened to sit down again. To her dismay, the others were no longer discussing politics but had moved on to Schopenhauer.
No, it hasn't enjoyed much success, Herr Levin was saying, although I found the book interesting, or at least different. This fellow Schopenhauer can't be all bad, Álvaro jested, if he has translated Gracián he must speak Spanish, which is quite good coming from a German. Bah! said Professor Mietter dismissively, mere plagiaries of Eastern religions, these people cannot replace God, so they go searching for answers in Buddhism. I like Schopenhauer, said Hans, because he loathes Hegel. But don't you find all that despair rather tragic? retorted Herr Levin. Perhaps, Hans replied, but he also lends himself to an optimistic reading. We can admit the idea of free will, while refusing to accept that it must always lead to suffering. That would mean we are condemned to try to be happy, would it not? And yet, gentlemen, the professor objected ...
And so the gentlemen of the salon went on spouting their opinions endlessly, their lips quivering in the candlelight, as though the glow of the flames breathed life into their arguments. Sophie listened with a mixture of concentration and exasperation--she appreciated the things they said and detested what they left out. She glanced at the silent Frau Levin, clutching her husband's shoulder, knowing he enjoyed the fact that she waslistening to him. Sophie imagined them going home, strolling in search of a cab, she leaning on her husband's arm, he bending slightly towards her, and saying: Are you all right, my dear? Are you warm enough? Or declaring: Ahem, what an interesting discussion about Schopenhauer! Waiting for her to say, Yes it had been most interesting and how brilliant his observations had been, even though she did not know much about it, at which Herr Levin would straighten up, grip her arm more tightly, and explain to her who Schopenhauer was, where he taught, what works he had published, It's really quite simple, you know, my dear, and he would proceed to tell her everything he had not had the opportunity to say in the salon, once more listened to and listening to the sound of his own voice.
Sophie wrung her hands like someone screwing up a piece of paper.
What about you, my dear? she asked Frau Levin all of a sudden. Have you nothing to say? Frau Levin looked bewildered. My wife, Herr Levin spoke for her, ahem, my wife agrees with me. What a happy coincidence! Sophie exclaimed. He's right, Frau Levin said in a faint voice, I agree with him. Sophie bit her lip.
What about you Mademoiselle? Hans said provocatively, staring intently at her lip.
Me? replied Sophie crooking her wrist level with her chest. Why, learned gentlemen, I feel honoured simply to be listening to you, for nothing delights us women more than to witness such a show of wisdom, isn't that so, my dears? Why, we could spend days on end admiring this virile exchange of opinions. Yet, lo and behold, in full flow, you question a novice like me about Schopenhauer! and I must admit to feeling embarrassed, as the mere question bestows on me a value of which I am unworthy. And so, meine Herren, I beg your indulgence as well as your pardon for my poor knowledge of the subject, but you know what scant attention we women give to the great thinkers. Having said allof which, I shall venture upon this difficult topic in order to state that, as far as I can see, which undoubtedly is not very far, Herr Schopenhauer is decidedly one of the most wretched authors I have ever had the opportunity of misinterpreting. I must admit it is only recently I have had the temerity to read his book, but he seemed rather muddled on the subject of women, insisting we devote ourselves to housework or gardening, but never to improving our minds by reading literature, much less thinking about politics. And therein, gentlemen, lies a paradox, because in order for his ideas to thrive, that is, in order for his doctrine to be heeded, Schopenhauer would do better to recommend all of us women to make a thorough study of philosophical works, in particular his own. Despite my limitations as a theorist, it seems to me the greatest philosophers of our day are bedevilled by a contradiction--they all seek to establish new systems of thought, yet they all think the same way about women. Do you not find that terribly amusing, gentlemen? I am sure there are more palm hearts if anyone is hungry.
They had arranged to meet at midday in the Central Tavern. Álvaro was waiting for him, elbows resting on the bar, one foot on the rail, in the pose of a good horseman. Hans staggered into the tavern half-an-hour late. Good afternoon, welcome back to the world, Álvaro said, more entertained than annoyed when he saw the dark circles under Hans's eyes. I'm sorry, said Hans, I went to the cave last night, then back to the inn where I stayed up reading. What time is it? What! said Álvaro, astonished. Do you mean to tell me you don't wear a watch? The fact is, I don't see any point in watches, said Hans, they never give me the time I want. Well, Álvaro smiled, this is what is known as a cultural exchange--I resemble a German and you a Spaniard.
My ancestors, Álvaro said, munching, came from Vizcaya. I was born in Guipúzcoa, but I'm Andalusian by adoption. Iwas brought up in Granada, do you know it? Yes, it's beautiful, that's where I spent my childhood, my father found a job at the Hospital Real and we stayed there. I think everyone should see two things before they die--the Generalife in springtime and Plaza Bib-Rambla in the morning. You should see the señoras of the city dressed up to the nines to go to the fishmonger, and their husbands out strolling with that bad-tempered yet in the end likeable air. Sometimes when I open my eyes in the morning I still think I'm in Granada. I don't suppose you know where you are when you wake up, I imagine, well, perhaps you will one day. I've never made any friends like the ones I had in Granada. It's a melancholy city, too, and in that way it resembles Wandernburg--the people are proud of their melancholy. Apart from the first few years here, with Ulrike, I tell you I've never felt as happy as I did back then. Maybe it was because I was younger, but everything seemed on the verge of happening. In fact the whole of Spain's fate was about to be decided--we would either be invaded by foreign troops, or a traitorous king would be restored to the throne, or we would proclaim a republic. The days of the Cádiz Cortes were exhilarating, I take it you've heard of that? I'm sorry, but you Germans don't give a ... about Spanish politics! and well, things in my country came so close to being so different! As it was, I decided to go into exile when King Ferdinand swept back into power and tore up our constitution, reinstated the Inquisition and began executing people. Was I forced to leave? Yes and no. Admittedly, people were being spied on, driven from their jobs and arrested left, right and centre. But the main reason I left was that I was disillusioned, do you understand? They had taken over the country we'd been fighting for, we had won only to lose. So that even before we left many of us felt we were no longer living in our own country.
Yes, please, another two over here, your health! WhenNapoleon's lot arrived, I confess I felt peculiar. Yes, they had invaded our country, and yet they brought with them a culture we admired and laws we wanted. Did it make sense to fight for a rotten, medieval state? Hadn't we always been independent without being free? Finally, I enrolled and spent a few months fighting in Andalusia and Extremadura. Then I was billeted at the garrisons in Madrid and Guadalajara, together with militiamen from all over Spain. And I swear, Hans, it was listening to the discussions, seeing my compatriots' points of view that made me consider deserting more than once. But, coño, this was my country, after all! My idea was to receive the enemy, to learn as much from him as I could before driving him out and carrying on the revolution without him. I joined the guerrillas with one eye on the revolutionary juntas and the constitutional assembly, which were what most interested me. And I couldn't help wondering where the hell the fatherland was, what exactly were we fighting for? Did I find out? Ah, that's a good point. It may sound strange, but from talking to the other militiamen I realised it was our childhood memories we were fighting for.
During the occupation, the thing that most, another? Steady on, all right, but only if you're paying, I'm joking, what most upset me was seeing the way the priests supported us, the scoundrels were terrified Spain would end up like France! I can still remember the loathsome lessons they preached around the parishes. "What are you my child? A Spaniard by the grace of God. What are the French? Once Christians, now heretics. Of what is Napoleon born? Of sin. Is it a sin to kill a Frenchman? No, Father, heaven is our reward for killing one of those heretic dogs." They weren't patriots, they had an instinct for survival (patriotism is precisely that, said Hans), don't be a cynic. I was unable to sleep at night and was assailed by doubts. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy? What if by fighting for Spain we were actually fighting against Spain, like the supporters ofthe French we so despised? Who was betraying the country more? I don't want to bore you. The fact is, after the restoration I finally fled Spain. I roamed half of Europe until I arrived in Somers Town. On my first stroll around London I emptied out my pockets and realised all I had was one duro, do you know how much a duro is worth? Not enough to change into pounds, or should I say shillings. And so I walked as far as the Thames, gazed into its depths and tossed my coin into the water. (You threw it away? Hans asked, surprised. Why?) My dear friend, a gentleman like me could hardly come to a great city with that little money! I preferred to start from scratch than to manage on a paltry sum. I made contact with the Spanish community, for a while I lived off loans, and I took on a few of those jobs that are wretched to do and interesting to talk about. I was a nightwatchman, a waiter, a fish gutter, a groom at a racing stable, a framer's assistant and a replacement teacher at a fencing school. (Are you that good a swordsman?) No, which explains why I was only the replacement! Finally, almost by chance, I entered the textile business. I had a stroke of luck, I invested my savings and they doubled. A friend and I made some more favourable investments, and that's when I decided to take the risk and begin working exclusively in that industry. And I picked the right moment. Various relatives of mine joined the business, and a few years ago we set up a wholesale company trading between Germany and England. We operate in London, Liverpool, Bremen, Hamburg, and in Saxony and the surrounding area, which I am in charge of. I can't say I enjoy what I do, but it gives me a good income and well, you know, you reach an age, a rather pitiful age if you like, when income becomes more important than enjoyment. And then of course there was Ulrike.
(Pass the meatballs, said Hans. And did you never return to Spain?) No, yes, well, I went back after the 1818 amnesty. Tosee what things were like, I suppose. But I found the atmosphere disturbing, so I went straight back to London. That was when I met Ulrike, on a business trip to Germany. It was so, so ... It was like a, a revelation. Unique. (Here, have a drink, said Hans.) She was from this part of the world, she was longing to come back here, so we moved to Wandernburg. One of the things that most pains me is the thought that Ulrike never got to know Spain, I was never able to show her the places I grew up in. No. We had plans to go there, we would often talk about it, we always used to say: "One of these days", "This summer at the very latest", you know the kind of thing. And then the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis arrived, and the Holy Alliance, may the devil take it, which made it impossible to go anywhere, and politics, the constitution and my relatives all went to hell. That was when the remaining members of my family went into exile in England. You and I come from wretched countries, Hans. Both were invaded by Napoleon and ruled by his brother, both fought for their freedom and regressed once they had attained it. Spain is my home, but not today's Spain, the Spain of my dreams. A republican, cosmopolitan Spain. The more Spain asserts its Spanishness, the less Spanish it becomes. I suppose all countries are like that, aren't they? Vague entities that guide us (I don't know, Hans said, I don't think countries guide us, I think we move around because of people, and they can be from anywhere), yes, but many of the people we love we meet in our own country, not another one. (We move around because of languages, Hans went on, which we learn, or, like you said, because of memories. But what if memories move around, too? What if your memories all come from different times and places? Which are truly yours? That's my problem, that's what my problem is.) Hey, are you feeling all right?
Their shoulders began to fold like umbrellas. The Central Tavern had been filling up with other customers, the smokeand the smell of fried food floated up to the ceiling, mouths munched, laughed and drank. Having lost the relative privacy they had been enjoying at the bar, Álvaro and Hans began to feel a little out of place--the surrounding merriment seemed to mock their solemnity. What are they all laughing at? said Álvaro. Nothing in particular, replied Hans, people are the same everywhere--they laugh because they're eating. Aren't we simply a couple of sad sacks? Álvaro suggested. That's another way of putting it, said Hans. They both burst out laughing, and in doing so their talkativeness came back. They spoke of the Wandernburgers' strange manners, which combined surliness with an almost fanatical observance of etiquette. When I first arrived in Wandernburg, Hans told him, I didn't have a clue how to behave. People here scarcely smile at you or lend you a hand, yet they have half a dozen ways of bowing and a limitless repertoire of greetings. That is, of course, assuming they manage to recognise one another through the accursed fog. How do they manage to flirt when they can't even see one another? How do they reproduce? I suspect, said Álvaro, that they only couple during the summer months. Here, Hans went on, a man can hold on to his hat for a whole hour if his host doesn't invite him to put it down. The ladies keep theirs on so as not to have to ask permission to go to the water closet to tidy their hair. You never know whether to sit down, bob your head, bow or tuck in your backside. In short, concluded Álvaro, they insist on manners because they are so uncouth.
Hans saw five unusually well-dressed, or prodigiously badly dressed, men enter the tavern. What most struck him was that despite the place being packed to the rafters, a waiter elbowed his way across the room and turfed a group of young people from a table. Once it had been cleared and given a good wipe, the five men ceremoniously ensconced themselves, as though they had just walked into an assembly hall rather than a tavernreeking of smoked sausage. Three of them crammed shiny fat cigars into their mouths. The waiter brought over five tankards of stout and a bowl of strawberries. Álvaro explained to Hans that these men were Herr Gelding and his associates, owners of the Wandernburg textile mill. That's where Lamberg works, Hans remarked. Is that the fellow your organ grinder introduced me to the other day? said Álvaro. I don't envy him working for them. And there's no avoiding them, because all the businessmen, industrialists, contractors, brokers and bankers in this city are related to one another. They stick close together. Intermarry. Cohabit. Reproduce. Look out for each other's interests. And they're forever guzzling beer. And this great family spends its time employing the members of another great family, that of the lawyers, doctors, notaries, architects and civil servants. If you added the two together you'd have the entire wealth of the local middle class, with a bit of loose change to spare. Some of which might belong to Herr Gottlieb. But not much. You might say this city's economy is based on organised incest. I see you know them well, Hans chuckled. I know them too well, nodded Álvaro, and the worst of it is that as soon as they see me, we'll be obliged to go over and pay our respects. Because, among other things, I make my living by selling what they produce.
Five minutes later, Álvaro and Hans were sitting at the table with Herr Gelding and his associates. Hans was surprised at the exaggerated politeness with which Álvaro spoke to them, marshalling his accent, masticating his voice, imbuing it with a military air completely at odds with the singsong Spanish lilt he had when he spoke to Hans. Herr Gelding immediately launched into the question of his payments, which Álvaro responded to by quoting figures, prices and dates from memory.
What vexes me, Herr Gelding said, sucking on his cigar, the corners of his mouth stained with strawberry juice, is thisculture of self-pity, this constant griping despite improving conditions. Although you have to hand it to the scoundrels, conditions have improved because of their griping! No, I'm not denying certain things aren't negotiable, I can even understand day labourers wanting, shall we say, guarantees of longer-term employment. What I'm saying, gentlemen, as God is my judge, is that I work longer hours than they do in order to keep production up. And as is only natural, I demand no less of a commitment from my workers. People rail against flexible hiring practices, yet such practices have seen this accursed city grow by seven per cent in each of the past twenty years, perfect, congratulations, yours is an excellent guild, but do you know what, gentlemen, can you guess what happens when you give in and make an employee permanent? Ah, surprise, surprise, he stops working so hard! Look, work takes work. They'll be asking us to turn off the machines next so they can take an afternoon nap! Upon my soul, gentlemen, I don't know what the world is coming to. Take the machine operators, for instance. The machine operators start work half-an-hour later because it takes time for the boilers to warm up. Very good, I accept that, that's the way boilers work, someone stokes them up and then you come along afterwards. Ah, yet they still find reasons to complain! Isn't that enough to, well, isn't it? Those damned machine operators get up later than I do, and they work a twelve-hour day. And what does that mean, gentlemen? Unless I've lost the ability to count, it means they work half a day, half a day, and the other half they have off. Is that enough to exhaust a man? Is it a reason to start making demands? Or do they expect to have more time off than at work? In my day, gentlemen, in my day! What would these operators think of the hours my father put in, my good father, may God keep him in His glory, who never complained in his life, and who built up a factory all on his own! Oh, nomore strawberries, what a shame. My father knew how to, but what's the use. This is no way to build a nation, or anything else for that matter!
Encouraged by Hans's frowns, Álvaro cleared his throat and said: My dear Herr Gelding, you will have noticed that your workers spend most of their time off sleeping. Herr Gelding stared at him, cigar drooping, mouth open in astonishment. He looked more puzzled than offended, as though Álvaro hadn't understood what he had been saying. Ah, but Herr Urquiho, replied Herr Gelding, we mustn't interfere, no, a worker must be free to do as he pleases in his time off, without any meddling from me, of course! I don't know how they run things in your country, but rest assured, one of the rules in my company is complete freedom of the workers outside the workplace. I imagine we agree on that!
The knocking on his door finally forced him out of bed. A few bands of light filtering through the drawn shutters crept towards Hans's cold feet. He pulled on the first thing he could find on the chair, shuffled over to the door and opened it, still trying to unglue his eyelids--smiling, Lisa handed him a mauve sheet of paper. Hans meant to thank her, although he gave a yawn that sounded like hanyeu. He took the letter from Lisa's chafed fingers and closed the door.
In the dim light filtering through the shutters, Hans glimpsed the name on the card accompanying the letter--Sophie Gottlieb.
He jumped up, went to the washbasin to splash water on his face, opened the shutters, and sat down by the window. The card was printed on stiff paper and had a thin raised edge. The inscription was an unusual orange-grey colour that suggested solemnity and a hint of coquetry. Despite his eagerness, Hans paused before opening the letter, enjoying the uncertainty, savouring this moment of heightened expectation, lest what followed should be a disappointment. Sophie's swift, resolute,slightly sprawling pen strokes caught his attention--this was a feline hand rather than the writing of a young lady. There was no heading or greeting.
I have been thinking, in odd moments, about the arguments you put forward at last Friday's meeting. And, although I will not try to hide the fact that some of what you said jarred with me a little, or perhaps what jarred was your tone (why are you in the habit of making what is intelligent seem a challenge, and what is logical appear conceited?), I must confess I also found it interesting, and even to some extent original.
"Interesting"! "To some extent"! Hans glanced for a moment at the sun pouring through the window, delighting in Sophie's sense of pride. He knew that whatever she went on to say, he was going to enjoy her letter.
For this reason, my dear Herr Hans, providing you are willing and can find no better way to spend your time, it would give me great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you outside the salon, which you may have observed requires me to share my attention and even to employ the ruses of a hostess, as I am sure you have perceived.
This fleeting complicity with him, "as I am sure you have perceived", made his breath quicken. So, she admitted perceiving that he had perceived! What exactly they had both perceived remained to be seen. But if Sophie thought she could get away with this disclosure without any consequences, she was mistaken--Hans was willing to cling to her words as to a branch in mid plunge.
Therefore, if you have time, my father and I would be delighted to receive you at our house tomorrow afternoon at a half past four. I trust I am not importuning you with a fresh engagement--it appears you are a tireless reader, and tireless readers have little time for socialising. Kindly replyat your leisure during the course of the day.
Hans was aware of an omission in her aloof and rather abrupt ending, the subtle omission of a conventional, and, in this case, he thought, extraordinarily significant word--yours. If Sophie had not finished her letter with the usual polite phrase yours affectionately, perhaps her coy omission of that possessive revealed a sensual fear that could not be entirely ingenuous. Could it? Or couldn't it? Was he imagining things? Was he making a fool of himself by being overly susceptible? Was he reading too much into it? Was he being too clever by half? Was he once more inadvertently confusing intelligence with conceit?
He was rescued from this confusion by the postscript, which looked as if it had been jotted down as an afterthought, and revealed an uneasy hesitancy:
PS I will also take the liberty of asking you to refrain from appearing before my father in the beret and broad-collared shirt I have seen you wearing in your walks around the city. Without wishing to deny my sympathies for the political connotations of such attire, I am sure you appreciate its inappropriateness in a household as traditional as mine. The more formally you dress the better. Thank you in advance for complying with these tiresome rules of etiquette. I shall do my utmost to reward your goodwill with canapés and sweetmeats. S G
And Sophie's last words were sweet, sweet her very last word.
Hans was beside himself with joy and anticipation. What should he reply? And how long should he wait before doing so? What clothes was he to wear the following day? He stood up, sat down again, got to his feet again. He felt a wave of happiness, had a violent erection and then could barely controlhis emotions. He realised he must first read Sophie's letter in a calmer state. He made himself wait a few minutes, looked out of the window at the heads, hats and feet moving up and down Old Cauldron Street, while he let the letter cool down. He read her opening admonishments over and over. He smiled at Sophie's gentle rebuke, which revealed her nature as surely as they alluded to him. He studied the dissembling nature of her invitation, her winning disdain, the charming piquancy of her complicity. He pondered the abrupt ending, trying to gauge how much of it was due to aloofness and how much to prudence. And to finish off he savoured the marvellous appeal in the postscript, which was Sophie's way of saying that she too noticed him in the street. Hans picked up his quill and dipped it into the ink pot.
When he had written his reply, he avoided rereading it so as not to repent of some of the liberties he had taken in the midst of his euphoria. He took a deep breath, signed his name and folded the piece of paper. He finished dressing and went downstairs to give it to Lisa, taking the opportunity to ask who had delivered the letter and whether they had said anything. From Lisa's description he knew that Elsa was the messenger. She said that she had said nothing worth mentioning, although, in Lisa's opinion, she had been rather abrupt, and had even cast a disapproving eye over the inside of the inn. And that (Lisa did not say as much, but Hans deduced it, amused) both she and her mother believed Elsa was the author of the mauve letter. Lisa stared with a mixture of envy and longing at the paper Hans gave her. For a moment he thought Lisa was being inquisitive as she puzzled over the names of the sender and the addressee. He immediately felt a flash of shame--Lisa was not reading, she was wishing she could. She raised her eyes and studied Hans's face, as if to show him she at least knew how to read his thoughts. Lisa's adolescent beauty suddenly becamefirmer, as if anticipating the future. Hans did not know what to say or how to apologise. She seemed content with her brief intimidating flash--her features softened, she looked like a young girl again, and she said: I'll deliver it right away, sir. Hans felt humbled by the word sir.
Hans was sipping vegetable broth in the dining room when he saw Elsa's hat appear in the doorway. He invited her to sit down, and was surprised when she accepted. After a moment of awkward silence, he smiled: Well? Elsa's leg was pumping up and down once more, as though working an imaginary pedal. Do you have a message for me? Hans asked, without realising he was not looking her in the eye but watching her leg go up and down. Elsa stopped moving it abruptly. She handed him a letter. It's from Fräulein Gottlieb, she said. This seemed to Hans so obvious that there must be more to it. I see, he ventured, trying to draw her out further. She gave it to me an hour ago, Elsa said, and asked me to deliver it here at the inn. I see, he nodded, with growing anticipation. I couldn't come until now, Elsa said. That's all right, said Hans, I'm grateful to you for bringing it. There's no need, she said, I'm doing my duty. (I wonder what she means, thought Hans. Did she bring me the letter willingly despite being obliged to, or, on the contrary, would she not have brought it unless she'd been forced to? Hans was so nervous he was lost in his conjectures. Perhaps Elsa hadn't meant either of these things. Perhaps her mind was elsewhere or she had simply wanted to rest for a moment on the sofa. But in that case why was she still there?) Elsa continued: Fräulein Gottlieb told me you needn't reply, unless you wish to. (And what was he to make of this? Should he refrain from replying, did Sophie's new missive imply some kind of interlude? Or was Sophie's caveat an invitation to carry on with their communication, like the gestures she had made with her fan? Thinking wasn't easy after a generous serving of vegetable soup.)
Elsa left Hans with the impression she hadn't managed to say everything she wanted, or hadn't wished to tell him everything she should have. She had been inscrutable yet polite, avoiding his questions without refusing to answer them. After poring over Sophie's letter, Hans felt none the wiser--in evasive, flawless grammar, Sophie expressed her delight at the news of his attendance the following afternoon; she mentioned some trivial detail about the meeting; above all (and this was almost the only thing he noticed in her letter) she seemed to have tempered the tone of her previous communication, rebuffing his flattery with cautious irony. Reluctantly, Hans realised he could spend the entire day trying to decipher hidden meanings, but no amount of effort would put an end to the waiting nor to the feverish turmoil he was beginning to fear would accompany his every movement from now on.
As the light began to fade, Hans, the organ grinder and Franz crossed the city together. The little orange-and-green cart juddered over the cobblestones and the beaten earth. Hans marvelled at the way the old man calmly pushed his instrument almost two miles every day to and from the square. It also amazed him that the organ grinder never wavered when he reached a bend or crossing or fork in the road. Hans had been there for at least a month and a half and had so far failed to take the same route more than twice in a row--he would always reach his destination, but never without some modification along the way. Hans now suspected that rather than secretly shifting position, Wandernburg rotated suddenly like a sunflower turning to follow the sun.
The mud from the day before had begun to dry. Patches of melting frost gave off a slight mist. A stench of churned earth and urine wafted up from the ground. The grey city walls were stained with moisture and the remains of the day.Hans contemplated the age-old grime, the clotted neglect of Wandernburg to which he was still unaccustomed. The organ grinder sighed, and, placing a skinny hand on his shoulder, declared: Isn't Wandernburg pretty! Hans looked at him with astonishment. Pretty? he said. Don't you find it a little dirty, gloomy, small? Of course, said the organ grinder, but also very pretty! Don't you like it? That's a shame. No, please don't apologise, there's no need be so formal! I understand, it's normal. Perhaps you'll like it better when you get to know it. What I like about Wandernburg is you. You, Álvaro, Sophie. It's the people, don't you think, who make a place beautiful? You're right, said the organ grinder, but for me it's also, how can I explain? These alleyways never cease to amaze me, I never tire of looking at them because, Franz! Leave those horses alone! Come here you rascal! When that dog is hungry he thinks everyone's his friend and is going to give him a bone instead of a kick. Where was I? Ah yes, to me these streets are, how can I put it, they're so old that they seem new. What nonsense I talk! They fascinate me. Tell me, said Hans, what fascinates you? What exactly do you like about them? Nothing, everything, the organ grinder said, the square for instance, even though I've been playing there for years, every day I find it more interesting. I used to be afraid I'd grow bored with it, you know, that I'd have had enough of the square, but now the more I look at it, the less I seem to know it. If you could see the tower in summer compared to when it snows! It looks as if, as if it's made of a different substance. And the market, the fruit, the colours, you never know what each new crop will bring, this winter, for instance, Franz! Watch out! Come here! Or what can I say, I like it when they start lighting the street lamps, have you noticed? I like watching the way people change without realising it, they keep walking by, the men's hair thins, the women grow stout, the children grow up, new ones appear. It saddens me to hear young people saythey don't like this city, it's good they are curious and think of other places, but wouldn't it be good if they were also curious about where they are from, because perhaps they haven't looked closely enough. They're young. They still see things as either beautiful or ugly. Do you know I enjoy talking to you, Hans. I never talk this much to anyone.
Far away in the meadows, sheep were finishing giving suck to their lambs, who clung to their teats as to a last ray of light. The wool of night was quickly being woven.
Reichardt and Lamberg had been the first to arrive, and were now sharing a bottle of wine and some stale bread. Álvaro had turned up a little later. At Hans's request he had begun to drop by the cave from time to time, and, also at Hans's request, on these occasions would bring with him a generous helping of food that his cook had prepared. Since he had been widowed, Álvaro lived alone in his house on the edge of the city, not far from the textile mill. He usually went everywhere on horseback. Once he was in the city he would leave his mount at a stable and either take carriages or walk. Álvaro sat bolt upright on his horse, heels flush with the animal's flank, arms relaxed, almost down by his side. Seeing him ride one had the impression that his lively steed was at one with him, rather than obeying the tug of the reins. Álvaro never stayed very late at the cave. At a given hour, he would glance at his pocket watch, bid the others good night, and climb back on his horse.
Unusually for him, Álvaro arrived at the cave looking dishevelled. His hair was tousled and his cheeks flushed, as if he had washed his face after some strenuous effort. Sorry I'm late, he muttered, sitting down in front of the fire, I had a disastrous tilbury ride. First we almost turned over, then one of the wheels got stuck and I had to get out and push while the driver whipped the horse. The brute beat him so hard I feared the poor creature might not make it! It seemed to Hans his friend was explainingtoo much for the informality of the cave. He recalled his walk there earlier with the organ grinder, the state of the road, and remarked casually: How odd your tilbury should get stuck in the mud, it was almost dry this afternoon. That's as may be, Álvaro replied abruptly, but the part we went along was muddy!
Their appetites sated and sharing the warmth of the fire, they struck up a friendly banter. Álvaro appeared to have regained his composure, and began joining in, having a laugh with Hans whenever he could, nudging him and patting him on the back. Their conversations gradually grew muddled. But before making them inebriated, the wine had granted them a couple of hours of clear-headedness. Then Álvaro had asked Hans something no one had ever asked him before: You're always threatening to go to Dessau, he said, what exactly is it you have to do there? Herr Lyotard is expecting me, Hans replied solemnly. And who might he be? Álvaro enquired. I'll tell you another time, said Hans, winking at him. Hey, Álvaro asked, and what about Berlin, don't you ever think of going back there? No, said Hans, what would be the point? I may have good memories of it, but can I go back and find them? I may go there again but I could never go back. Going back is impossible. That's why I prefer new places. And before Berlin, the organ grinder said curiously, where were you? A long way away, replied Hans. But, my dear boy, the old man said, folding one of Franz's ears as if it were a handkerchief, why do you travel so much? Let's just say, Hans replied, that I'm unable to live any other way. I think if you know where you're going and what you're going to do, you're likely to end up not knowing who you are. My work is to translate, and I can do that anywhere. I try not to make plans, and to let fate decide. For instance, a few weeks ago I left Berlin. I was thinking of going to Dessau and decided to stop off here for the night, and now look--by chance I am still here, enjoying talking to you. Things don't happen by chance,said the organ grinder, we help them along, and if they turn out badly we blame chance. I'm sure you know why you're still here, and I'm delighted you are! And when you leave you'll know why you did so as well. Hey, you two professors! Reichardt groaned. If you carry on philosophising I'm going to fall asleep!
No, no, Lamberg suddenly declared, narrowing his eyes, Hans is right. I'm never sure why I stay here. I don't know what I'm doing at the mill or where I might go next. I'm the same as Hans, but I don't move.
The fire and Lamberg's eyes competed, sparking off one another.
I can't help it, Hans went on, when I stay in one place for a long time I notice I don't see so well, as if I were losing my eyesight. Things begin to look like one big blur, and nothing amazes me any more. On the other hand, when I travel everything is a mystery, even before I arrive. For instance, I love going by stagecoach and observing my fellow travelers, I invent lives for them, speculate about why they are leaving or arriving somewhere. I wonder whether something will happen that will bring us together or whether we'll never meet again, which is more likely. And, since it is almost certain we'll never meet again, it occurs to me this intimacy is unique, that we could remain silent or declare ourselves, you know the kind of thing; for example, I look at one of the ladies and think: I could tell her right now "I love you"; I could say "Madam, I want you to know I care", and there would be one chance in a thousand that instead of looking at me as though I had lost my mind, she'd say "Thank you" or smile at me (my eye! said Reichardt. The lady would slap you in the face for being so forward), yes, of course, but she might also ask "Do you mean it?" or confess "It's been twenty years since anyone said that to me", do you see? What I mean is it thrills me to think that this is the only time I will ever meet the passengers in this stagecoach. And whenI see how quiet, how serious they are, I can't help wondering what they're thinking as they look at me, what they must feel, what their secrets are, how much they suffer, whom they love. It's the same with books, you see mounds of them in bookshops and you want to read them all, or at least to have a taste of them. You think you could be missing out on something important, you see them and they intrigue you, they tempt you, they tell you how insignificant your life is and how tremendous it could be. Everyone's life, Álvaro declaimed in a comic voice, is both insignificant and tremendous. How young you are, Hans, said the organ grinder. Not nearly as young as I look, Hans replied with a grin. And such a flirt! Álvaro added. Hans hit him on the head with a twig. Álvaro pulled Hans's beret down over his face and jumped on top of him. They rolled around the floor, laughing aloud, while Franz joined in excitedly, looking for a chance to enter the fray.
I see mysteries everywhere, too, the organ grinder said pensively, only, like I was telling you today, I see them without having to leave the square. I compare what I see with what I saw yesterday, and I tell you, it's never the same. I look around and I see if one of the fruit stalls is missing or if someone is late for church or if a couple have had a quarrel or if a child is sick. Do you think I'd notice if I hadn't been to the square so many times? I'd feel giddy if I traveled as much as you do, I'd have no time to concentrate. You think it's so wonderful, Reichardt said mockingly, because you get mesmerised just looking at the view. I'm almost as old as you. (Which of you is older? Hans asked, amused.) That's a rude question, whippersnapper! Can't you see with your own eyes? He is, he is, look at my arms, feel! My problem is I get bored. I'm not so curious any more, as if places had aged like me. I mean, everything's the same, but diminished.
Hans looked at Reichardt, drained his glass and said: Whatyou just said is brilliant. "Everything's the same, but diminished." I don't think you realise how brilliant, damn it. I'll realise whatever you like, as long as you pass the bottle, Reichardt retorted. In short, said Álvaro, there seem to be two types of people, wouldn't you say? Those who always leave and those who always stay put. Well, and there are also those of us who first leave and then stay put. The way I see it, the organ grinder asserted, is this--there are those who want to stay put and those who want to leave. All right, said Álvaro, but wanting to leave and leaving aren't the same thing. Take me, for example, I've wanted to leave Wandernburg ever since, well, it doesn't matter, for a long time now, yet look, I'm still here. Thinking of leaving is one thing, but actually doing it is another. My dear man, the organ grinder said, am I not always on the move? But you're different, said Hans. (No, no, said the organ grinder, letting Franz lick the palm of his hand, we're just like everyone else aren't we, boy?) You know where your home is, you've found your place, but apart from a few exceptions like you (and Franz, the organ grinder said, don't forget Franz), seriously, though, I think that in order to know where we want to be we have to travel to different places, get to know things, people, learn new words (is that traveling or running away? the organ grinder asked), that's a good question, let me think, well--it's both, traveling can also be running away, but that's not a bad thing. And running away isn't the same as looking ahead either.
Lamberg spoke once more: I've always dreamt of running away to America. To America or any place where you can start afresh. I'd like to start afresh.
Lamberg went quiet and gazed into the fire as if attempting to read a map in the flames.
The organ grinder's bony fingers played along Franz's flank as the dog began to fall asleep. I've hardly traveled at all,he said, and honestly, Hans, I admire all the things you've seen. When I was young I was afraid to travel. I thought it might lead me astray. Lead you astray? said Hans, puzzled. Yes, explained the organ grinder, I thought it might lead me into thinking my life was different, but that this illusion would last only as long as I went on traveling. I don't know, Álvaro reflected, leaving or staying, perhaps that's a simplistic way to look at it. In fact, it's impossible to be fully in one place or to leave it completely. Those who stay could always have left or could leave at any moment, and those who have left could have stayed or could always come back. Doesn't virtually everyone live like that, on the frontier between leaving and staying? Then you'd feel at home in a port city, like Hamburg, Hans said. I had a home once and lost it, sighed Álvaro. I've just remembered an Arabic proverb, Hans said, placing a hand on Álvaro's shoulder--he who follows a path becomes the path. What the hell does that mean? said Reichardt. I don't know, Hans grinned, proverbs are ambiguous things. The best path is a winding path, declared Álvaro. Is that another proverb? Reichardt asked, belching. No, replied Álvaro, I just made that up. The best path, Reichardt ventured, is the one that leads to the sea. I haven't seen the sea in thirty years! The best path, suggested the organ grinder, is the one that leads you to the point of departure.
For me the best path, Lamberg spoke again, would be the one that makes me forget the point of departure.
The organ grinder thought this over. He was about to respond when Lamberg leapt to his feet, brushed off his corduroy jacket and wool breeches. I have to go, he said, gazing at the dying embers. It's late and I'm working tomorrow. Thanks for the supper. The organ grinder stood up laboriously and offered him a last swig of wine. The four others said goodbye without getting up. Before stepping through the cave mouth, Lambergturned and said to Hans: I'm going to think about what you said. With that he vanished into the night.
And why can't you have another home? the organ grinder asked. It's too late for that now, Álvaro stammered, half out of sorrow, half in his cups. Aren't you happy here? said the organ grinder. I never wanted to come here, Álvaro protested. So why don't you leave? Reichardt asked. Because I don't know how to, Álvaro replied. The best thing to be, said Hans, would be a foreigner. A foreigner from where? the organ grinder said. Just a foreigner, Hans shrugged. I ask because the ones I know are all different, said the old man. Some never adapt to the place they live in because they aren't accepted. Others just don't want to belong. And others are like Álvaro, who could be from anywhere. You speak like Chrétien de Troyes, Hans said in astonishment. Like who? asked the organ grinder. An early French poet, Hans replied, who said something extraordinary: He who believes his birthplace to be his homeland suffers. He who believes all places could be his homeland suffers less. And he who knows that no place can be his homeland is invincible. Wait a minute, Reichardt protested, now you're complicating things. What has some long-dead Frenchman got to do with anything? I was born in Wandernburg, this is my home and I couldn't live anywhere else, and that's that. Yes, Reichardt, said Hans, but tell me, what makes you so sure? How do you know your home is here and not in another place? I just do, damn it, snapped Reichardt. How could I not know? I feel part of the place, I'm a Saxon and a German. But Wandernburg is Prussian now, argued Hans, so why do you feel Saxon and not Prussian? Why do you feel German and not Teutonic, for example? This place has been Saxon, Prussian, half-French, practically Austrian, and who knows what it will be tomorrow. Isn't it pure chance? Borders shift around like flocks of sheep, countries shrink, break apart, grow bigger; empires are bornand die. The only thing we can be sure of is our lives, and we can live them anywhere. You just like to complicate things, Reichardt sighed. I think you're both right, the organ grinder said. It's true, Hans, our life is the only sure thing we have. But that's precisely why I know I'm from here, from this cave, this river, this barrel organ, they are my home, my belongings, all that I have. Fair enough, said Hans, but you could be playing your barrel organ anywhere. If it were anywhere but here, the organ grinder smiled, we would never even have met.
Now there were only three of them. Reichardt had gone to sleep it off. The wine was almost finished, and Álvaro's speech had become punctuated by slurred ss and exotic js. Hans reflected that Álvaro's German improved as his pronunciation worsened, as though being drunk brought his foreignness to the fore once and for all, and the patent impossibility of adapting completely to another language made him more careful, more confident. His mouth dry, his tongue loosened, Álvaro was entering his last half-hour of clear-headedness. He scrutinised almost every word the other two uttered, rolling them round on his tongue with a puzzled expression, savouring them as though they had only just been invented. Gemütlichkeit? Álvaro repeated. Amazing, isn't it? And so difficult--Gemütlichkeit ... First it compresses your lips, look, as if you were whistling, Gemü ... but then suddenly, eh, suddenly you have to smile, how funny! Tlich ... but, I'll be damned, the joy doesn't last long before there's a kick to the palate, keit, there keit! and your jaw is left hanging ... Hans, who had been listening with amusement, and contorting his lips along with Álvaro, asked how he would translate the word into Spanish. I'm not sure, Álvaro frowned, that depends, let me see, the problem of course is that you can say the word Gemütlichkeit to mean, to mean simply cosy, or blissful, can't you? Bah, but that's nonsense because it can also mean what you were saying, Gemütlichkeit, that is, oh I can hardly talkany more, the, the pleasure of being, of being where you are, the joy of staying, of having a home, can't it? That's what you were saying and that's what I don't have. That, said Hans, is what no German can find. Oh, but do you know what? Álvaro went on, taking no notice of Hans, I've thought of another word, one, one that's the opposite of the other one, and, well, actually it's not Castilian, its Galician, but every Spaniard knows this word, it's very pretty, listen to the sound, it's funny--morriña. When he heard how musical the word was, the organ grinder clapped and shook with laughter. He insisted Álvaro repeat it six times in a row, attempting to say it himself and chuckling each time he heard it. Suddenly exhilarated, Álvaro explained that morriña was a kind of nostalgia for the homeland, a faraway feeling of sadness that was somehow sweet. And that to be republican and Spanish was like suffering from morriña, a bittersweet feeling, an honour and a sorrow. A sorrow that comes and goes, the sorrow of sailors, said Álvaro, but we all have something of the sailor in us.
Somewhat incoherently and between hiccups, Hans told them the Tibetans referred to man as "he who migrates", because of his need to break his chains. The organ grinder, apparently still sober, replied pointing to the pinewood: I have no chains, if anything a few roots. Yes, well, of course, Hans stammered, of course, well, yes, but what the Tibetans mean is that things like chains and roots hinder our movement, and to travel is to overcome these limitations to free ourselves from our bodily ties, do you understand? Álvaro, my friend, you understand what I'm saying don't you? Certainly, comrade! Álvaro exclaimed. Let's overcome our morriña, our nostalgia and our Gemüt ... Gemütlichkeit! Lads, the old man smiled, I'm too advanced in years to overcome my bodily ties, if anything I'm trying to preserve them. As for nostalgia, well, isn't nostalgia a way of traveling? Hans's hiccups suddenly stopped, he contemplatedthe organ grinder and said: Álvaro, listen! If we took this fellow to Jena, more than one professor would be out of a job! Are you listening, Álvaro? Alas, no, Álvaro spluttered, I'm not listening to you or to myself any more.
Álvaro was dozing, open-mouthed, on the straw pallet. He had burbled a few slurred words in a foreign tongue. Hans was grinning idiotically, eyelids half-closed. The organ grinder covered him, then pulled an old blanket over himself. You're quite right, Hans murmured all of a sudden. No, replied the organ grinder, you're the one who's right. Then we agree, said Hans, half nodding off. They remained silent for a while, watching the moist light of dawn arrive. The pine trees slowly emerged and the river began to appear as they looked from the cave.
The light here is ancient, said the organ grinder, it finds it hard to come out, doesn't it?
What captivity, Hans whispered, what weakness.
Or what peace, the old man sighed, what repose.
And that Friday it happened--that Friday, at last, shortly after the meeting had begun, the scar on Bertold's upper lip wrinkled solemnly as he announced Rudi Wilderhaus's arrival at the Gottlieb salon. Herr Wilderhaus, intoned Bertold. Struggling to overcome a pang of jealousy, Hans had to admit he had grown used to hearing about Sophie's fiancé and to acting as though he did not really exist, as if ignoring him were enough to prevent his existence. The salon-goers stood up as one. Herr Gottlieb went over to the doorway to greet his guest. In the round mirror, Hans saw Sophie pull up the neckline of her dress and turn her back on him.
The two pairs of footsteps grew louder as they walked down the corridor--those of Elsa light and nervous, those of Rudi dawdling and squeaking. The squeaking noises came from the guest's patent-leather shoes, which as they drew nearer seemed toresonate through the room before they finally arrived, gleaming, and came to a halt in front of Herr Gottlieb. Rudi Wilderhaus was taller than Hans would have liked. He wore a velvet frock coat, which Bertold gingerly helped him out of, gold epaulettes, a waistcoat with two rows of jewel-studded buttons, snug white breeches with braid down the side and silk knee-length stockings. His sleeves were tapered at the wrist. Rudi Wilderhaus's starched collar gave the impression of offering up his robust head, adorned with an impeccable crimped wig, on a plate. Gnädiger, gnädiger Herr! exclaimed Herr Gottlieb, bowing and seizing his wrists. The ladies bobbed slightly at the knee, while the gentlemen (including Hans, who felt like a complete fool) tilted forward. Rudi Wilderhaus moved towards Sophie, took one of her slender gloved hands, brushed it with his lips and announced: Meine Dame ...
Once Hans had been introduced to him, he was aware of three things. Firstly, Rudi used powder on his face as well as a touch of rouge. Secondly, his clothes were freshly perfumed, giving off an overly pungent whiff of lemon. Thirdly, Rudi Wilderhaus spoke with his shoulders raised, as though his muscles were holding aloft his words, which for the moment were utterly prosaic. To Hans's surprise Rudi greeted him, if not cordially, then at least with a measure of respect he had shown neither the Levins nor Frau Pietzine. I was told the salon had acquired a new member, said Rudi. I'm delighted you could join. You have already seen what a pleasure it is to be welcomed into this household. Our dear Herr Gottlieb and my beloved Sophie are undeniably model hosts.
Our dear and my beloved, Hans ruminated. Our dear and my beloved.
Owing to his numerous other engagements, Sophie explained to Hans as they all sat down again, Herr Wilderhaus is not always able to honour us with his presence. Indeed, today he must leave before the end of the evening, but he will keep uscompany until eight o'clock. You will only take tea? Pray do not be so abstemious, my dear Herr Wilderhaus, you must at least try a spoonful of jelly, or I shall be most put out! Elsa, please, that's more like it, you see how I must cajole him into even trying a mouthful! Just before you arrived, my dear Herr Wilderhaus, we were discussing the fascinating differences between Germany, France and Spain, the latter thanks to the observations of Herr Urquiho, no, forgive me, Urquixo, is that right? Well, anyway, that was the subject of our discussion. I see, Rudi replied, trying to sound interested, good, very good.
Why does she insist on addressing him my dear Herr Wilderhaus? thought Hans. Isn't such politeness a trifle artificial? Isn't it overly formal? Isn't it inappropriate for someone who? Could it mean that? Why am I being so foolish? Why am I building up my hopes? Why can't I gather my thoughts? Why? Why? Why?
Professor Mietter was holding forth: Grossly oversimplifying, we may argue, then, that the French regard external objects as the driving force for their ideas, whereas we Germans regard them as a stimulus for our impressions. Granted, here in Germany we tend to converse about matters that would be better off written about in books. However, the French make a far worse error by writing on subjects that are only worthwhile in conversation. I would argue that first and foremost the French write in order to be admired, in the same way we Germans write in order to think, or the English write in order to be understood. Do you really think so, Professor? said Frau Pietzine. But the French are so elegant! Ils sont si conscients du charme! Frankly, dear Madame, said Professor Mietter, the two values can scarcely be ... Ahem, Herr Levin interrupted, I don't see why there is any need to choose? Every aesthetic, the professor declared, is founded on choice. Well, yes, of course, Herr Levin conceded, still, I am not entirely sure. My dear Professor, Sophie intervened, if I may say so, in my opinion we Germans would benefit from atouch of frivolity. As you so rightly point out, every aesthetic is doubtless based on choice. Yet, surely we may also decide on the mix, since an aesthetic is made up of concepts, abstractions, objects and anecdotes, wouldn't you agree? Hmm, Professor Mietter admitted grudgingly. (Hans made sure Rudi was not watching him and gazed at the tiny pores on Sophie's arm, wishing he could run his tongue over them.) And what in your opinion should we think of the French, Rudi? asked Sophie (Rudi! Hans cursed. Now she's calling him Rudi! Although this time she didn't say dear. Why am I being so ridiculous?) Me? Rudi jumped, raising his shoulders. Why, I concur with you entirely on the matter, my dear. (He uses the formal "you", Hans noted, I wonder if he does that when they're alone?) What I mean is, there is no difference between our two ways of thinking. None at all? Sophie persisted, come now, don't be bashful, I am inviting you to disagree. That is not the reason, Rudi smiled, it is simply that you speak like an angel. Then, Sophie jested, you do not question the existence of angels either? My dear Mademoiselle, Rudi replied, not when I see you, I confess.
(Ugh! Hans bit his lip.)
And what is wrong with austerity? said Professor Mietter. Is it not nobler than the spirit of decorativeness? My dear Professor, ventured Sophie, would it not be more just to refer to it as the spirit of sociability? Here in Germany we keep everything to ourselves, we hide it. In France everything is on display. Here we are naturally unsociable, or so we believe, and we end up seeming awkward. How right you are, said Frau Pietzine, there's no denying it. I was in Paris a few years ago and, well, it was another world, my dear. Those dresses. Those restaurants. Those parties. Upon my word! Let me tell you, my dear, a French corpse enjoys himself more than any living German! Germany, said Herr Levin enigmatically, is the kitchen of Europe and France is its stomach. Sociability notwithstanding, ProfessorMietter resumed, the French read less. Professor, Sophie said, I hesitate to contradict someone as well-informed as you, but what if instead of reading less the French read in a different way? Perhaps the French read in order to discuss books with others, whereas we Germans consider books as companions, a kind of refuge? The difference is more profound, Mademoiselle, Professor Mietter asserted. The problem with the French is that not only do they read for others, they also write only for others, for their audience. A German author creates his own audience, he moulds it, he makes demands on it. A French author is content simply to please his audience, to give it what it expects. Behold your French sociability, et je ne vous en dis pas plus! Professor, Hans remarked tetchily, is it not simply that in France there is more of an audience than here? Paris boasts more theatres and bookshops than Berlin. There is scarcely any audience here for artists to please or despise. Perhaps that is why we console ourselves with the idea that our authors are more scrupulous, independent and so forth. In Paris, my dear Monsieur, said Professor Mietter, what prevails is easy success and popular appeal. Berlin values loftiness and personality, do you not see the difference? You said it yourself, Hans retorted. In both cases there is a pre-existing pattern. Paris values one approach, while Berlin gives prestige to another. In both cases the author is seeking approval from his audience. Some seek the plaudits of the well-read, who fortunately abound in France, others the plaudits of critics and professors, who, in Germany, are the only people who read. Neither of the two alternatives is more or less sociable or self-seeking than the other. I see no difference in the nobility of their intentions. Monsieur Hans, if that is indeed the case (Sophie said as if colluding, inclining her head towards him while smiling disarmingly at Professor Mietter), how would you suggest bringing the two countries' readerships closer together?
Hans, who had given this matter much thought, was about to answer Sophie, when a more mischievous idea occurred to him. He placed his teacup and saucer on the low table, made as if Rudi had just tried to catch his eye, and said in a very loud voice: Please, Monsieur Wilderhaus, let us hear what you have to say.
Rudi, who for the past half-hour had done nothing but take snuff and respond with the words "of course, of course" to each of Sophie's ideas, sat bolt upright in his chair and raised an eyebrow. He shot Hans a black look, which he avoided, closely examining the trays of sweetmeats. Rudi noticed that his beloved was watching him with anticipation, and realised he must give some meaningful answer. Not to save face in front of the other guests, whose opinion he did not care a damn about, not even for the sake of his honour, which depended on far loftier values than these literary trifles. No--he must do so for Sophie's sake. And perhaps to teach a lesson to this impertinent young upstart who was not even wearing gloves. Rudi brushed a few grains of tobacco from his waistcoat, cleared his throat, raised his shoulders and declared: Paris may outstrip us in printing presses and theatres, but it has none of the nobility and uprightness of Berlin and never will.
The discussion went on as before. Only now Hans was smirking, and the snuff spilt out of Rudi's snuffbox.
Yes indeed, my friends, Frau Pietzine was saying, for me there is no better entertainment than reading. Is there anything more amusing and absorbing than a novel? (I see you are much entertained by reading, dear Madame, Professor Mietter said, sarcastically.) Just so, Professor, just so! Culture has always been a great solace to me. I am forever telling my children, as I did their deceased father, may God keep him in His glory--nothing is equal to a book, nothing will teach you as much, it doesn't matter what you read, just read! But you know how young people are these days, they are only interested in their friends, their games,their dances. (But are we sure? Herr Levin said. Ahem, are we sure it does not matter what we read?) Well, books cannot be bad, can they? (With all due respect, Álvaro said, I think the idea is an ingenuous one, of course there are mediocre, futile, even harmful books, in the same way there are atrocious plays and worthless paintings.) Well, I don't know, viewed in that light ... I agree with Monsieur Urquiho's appraisal, said Professor Mietter. Readers should be educated to reject inferior books. There is nothing terrible about that. I ask myself why we revere anything in print, however nonsensical. (But who decides? protested Hans. Who decides which books are nonsensical? The critics? The press? The universities?) Oh, please don't start telling us that all opinions are relative, let's show some nerve, someone has to have the courage to (I am not suggesting, interrupted Hans, that all opinions are equally worthy, yours, for instance, Professor, are far more authoritative than mine, what I am wondering is who is responsible for deciding where a work sits in the literary hierarchy, the existence of which I do not deny), very well, Herr Hans, if you do not consider it an impertinence on my part, I suggest a rather simple equation--the responsibility should lie with the philologist rather than the grocer, and the literary critic rather than the goatherd. Does that seem to you like a good place to start? Or should we discuss the matter first with the craftsmen's guild? (Professor, said Sophie, isn't your tea growing cold?) Thank you, my dear, in a moment. (We needn't consult them, retorted Hans, but I assure you if a philologist were to spend even half-an-hour examining the life of a craftsman, it would transform his literary opinions.) Yes, my dear, a little more please, it has gone cold.
One contemporary novelist, Professor Mietter went on, has suggested that the novel, yes, with sugar, please, the modern novel mirrors our customs, that ideas are irrelevant and only observation matters, and everything that happens in life is worthwriting about. An interesting notion, and one that accounts for the prevailing bad taste, wouldn't you agree? Any arrant nonsense or folly is worth relating simply because it happened. This idea, said Sophie, of the modern novel as a mirror is much bandied about these days, but what if we ourselves were the mirrors? I mean, what if we, the readers, were a reflection of the customs and events narrated in the novel? This, Hans concurred, seems to me a far more attractive idea, it means each reader becomes a kind of book. My dear, said Rudi, hastening to show his appreciation and seizing her hand, it's brilliant, I completely agree. The idea, Álvaro remarked, was already invented by Cervantes.
When the salon-goers began discussing Spain, Rudi glanced at the clock, stood up and said: If you will excuse me ... Herr Gottlieb rose to his feet, and the other guests immediately followed suit. Elsa started towards the hallway, but Sophie restrained her with a gesture and went to fetch Rudi's hat and cape herself. Rudi took the opportunity to say: This confounded dinner I have to attend is quite untimely. Believe me, I have found these discussions absolutely captivating. It has been a pleasure, meine Damen und Herren, a veritable pleasure. We shall meet again soon, perhaps this coming Friday. And now, with your kind permission ...
Hans had to admit that the moment Rudi moved from the realm of debate into that of gestures, manners and pleasantries, he exuded an extraordinary self-assurance. Waiting there, solid, radiant, statuesque, Rudi Wilderhaus gave the impression of being able to stand still for an hour without feeling the slightest discomfort. When Sophie came back with his hat and cape, Herr Gottlieb walked over and whispered a few words to them which made his whiskers soften, and the three of them disappeared into the corridor. Hans stared after them until all that remained were wisps of pipe smoke drifting up in the air, the squeak ofpatent-leather shoes and the rustle of fabric. The guests glanced at one another, suddenly self-conscious, and the Indeeds, Anyways, Do-you-sees and What-an-agreeable-evenings ricocheted around the room. Then they fell silent, helping themselves from the trays Elsa was passing around. Professor Mietter began leafing through a book next to one of the candelabras. Álvaro winked at Hans, as if to say "We'll talk later". Amid all this silence, Hans was surprised by the sudden fit of loquaciousness that overcame the usually taciturn Frau Levin--she was talking rapidly into her husband's ear without pausing for breath, gesticulating furiously, while he nodded, gazing down at the floor. Hans strained to hear what Frau Levin was saying, but only managed to make out the odd word here and there. One of them drew his attention and made him a little uneasy--he thought it was his name.
When Sophie re-entered the room, the guests came to life and once more the place was filled with laughter and voices. Sophie asked Bertold to light extra candles and Elsa to tell Petra, the cook, to serve some bowls of chicken broth. Then she went to sit down and the salon-goers gathered around the low table. Hans thought to himself that without a doubt Sophie possessed the sublime gift of movement--nothing around her remained still or unresponsive. Just then, Herr Gottlieb also came back, flopped into his armchair and sat twirling his whiskers round a plump finger. Although the conversation went on as before, Hans noticed that Sophie was avoiding his gaze in the round mirror. Far from unsettling him, Hans interpreted this sudden reticence as a good sign--this was the first time her fiancé and he had been together with her.
So you also know Spain, Monsieur Hans? Frau Pietzine said excitedly. I can't imagine how you have found the time to visit so many different countries! There's really nothing to it, my dear Madame Pietzine, Hans replied, it is simply a question of sitting in coaches and on boats. Judging from the numerous voyagesyou have described to us, Professor Mietter said sardonically, I suppose you must have spent your entire life traveling. Yes, in a way, I have, replied Hans, refusing to rise to the bait, and burying his nose in his teacup. In an attempt to ease the tension, Sophie turned to Álvaro and said: My dear friend, perhaps you would like to tell us a few things about today's literature in your own country. I am not sure there is much literature of today, Álvaro grinned. We are still catching up with the Enlightenment. Take Moratín, for example, does the name ring a bell? I am not surprised, he crossed the Alps and half of Germany without learning anything about Sturm und Drang. To be fair, Frau Pietzine chipped in, being à la page is not everything, is it? You cannot deny the allure of the Spanish villages, the charm of the common people, their festive spirit, their. Madame, Álvaro cut in, do not remind me! I have heard, said Herr Gottlieb, plucking his pipe from between his teeth, that religious fervour is purer than it is here, more heartfelt (father, sighed Sophie). And the music, Professor Mietter added, the music emanates from a different source, from the people themselves, from the very heart of their traditions and ...
Álvaro listened to his Germanic fellow salon-goers with a sad smile on his lips.
My friends, my dear friends, Álvaro said, taking a deep breath, I can assure you I have never in all my life come across as many Gypsies, guitars and pretty maids as I have in the paintings of English artists or the journals of German adventurers. As you see, my country is so extraordinary that half the poets in Europe, or Romantics as they are now known, write about Spain, while we Spaniards learn about ourselves from reading them. We write little. We prefer to be written about. And what horrors! The young men of Madrid seducing women with song! Young lasses killing each other or themselves because they are hot-headed Mediterraneans! Workmen idling on balconies,preferably in Andalusia! Religious bigots, working-class women from Lavapiés built like Amazons, enchanted inns, antiquated carriages! Well, the latter are real enough. I understand the appeal of such folklore, provided it relates to a foreign country.
A silence descended over the room, as though they had all been watching a soap bubble float to the floor.
At ten o'clock sharp, Herr Gottlieb heaved himself out of his chair. He went to wind up the clock and said goodnight to his guests.
In view of the rather gloomy atmosphere hanging over the gathering, Sophie suggested they devote the rest of the evening to music and performance, an idea warmly received by everyone, in particular Professor Mietter, who would occasionally accompany her in a Mozart or Haydn duet, and even the odd sonata by Boccherini (the even was Professor Mietter's word). Sophie sat at the piano and Elsa fetched the professor's cello case. Before the music began, Elsa was able to sit down for the first time since the beginning of the soirée, and for the first time, too, she appeared completely attentive. She ground a few crumbs into the carpet with the toe of her shoe--the crumbs turned to dust with the first stroke of Professor Mietter's bow. Hans could not take his eyes off Sophie's supple, tapping fingers.
The duet proceeded peacefully, disrupted only by abrupt nods from Professor Mietter, to which Sophie responded with discreet half smiles. When they had finished and been applauded by their fellow salon-goers, Sophie insisted Frau Pietzine come to the piano. Flattered by her entreaties, Frau Pietzine duly resisted, and then, just as Sophie appeared to back down, agreed, blushing theatrically. There was further applause--Frau Pietzine's necklace came away from her bosom and swung in mid-air for a moment. Then she turned to the piano, and with a clatter of rings and bracelets began to sing excruciatingly.
What did you think? asked the flushed Frau Pietzine. Withgreat astuteness, Sophie answered: Your playing was excellent. In an attempt to rouse Frau Levin from her stupor, Sophie suggested she and Frau Pietzine play a piece for four hands. Everyone declared this an excellent idea, and their implorings ended in a burst of applause when the flustered Frau Levin rose from her seat, glancing around her as though surprised to find herself on her feet. She made her timorous way towards the piano. Frau Pietzine's generous hips slid along the stool. Backs straight, shoulders tensed, the two women tackled Beethoven with more ardour than was seemly. Contrary to Hans's expectations, Frau Levin was an excellent pianist, disguising her companion's mistakes and compensating for her missed notes. During the recital, Herr Levin's eyes remained fixed on the piano stool, not quite on his wife's skirts.
The soirée ended just before midnight with a selection of the classics. Frau Pietzine requested Molière, Álvaro suggested Calderón and Professor Mietter demanded Shakespeare. Herr Levin came up with Confucius, but there was no book by Confucius in the house. Hans asked for nothing and was content to study the down on Sophie's arms, which changed shape, colour and (he assumed) taste according to the candlelight. Sophie was unanimously elected to recite the chosen passages. Hans was very curious to listen to her, because not only did it enable him to gaze at her with impunity, but he also had the idea that from listening to someone read aloud it was possible to read their erotic inflections. What Hans did not know was that Sophie shared his opinion. This was why Hans's looks, digressions, slips of the tongue and hesitations made her uneasy, but more than that, if she were honest, they disturbed her.
Hans felt that, although Sophie's voice was not beautiful, she modulated it perfectly, achieving a convincing tone without being strained, avoiding sounding on the one hand bland and on the other affected, maintaining a controlled delivery, her lipsslightly pursed, deliberately threading together the inflections, lingering on the more emphatic ones and skimming over the softer ones, alternating between the long and the short sounds with a rocking movement, modifying the punctuation to suit her breathing rather than any grammatical requirements, savouring each pause without drawing it out. In short, being sensual, not in order to please her audience, but for her own enjoyment. Hans thought: This is terrible. He half-closed his eyes and in his imagination tried to enter Sophie's throat, to float inside it, to be part of her air. The air undulating in her neck like warm liquid. She recites as though she were drinking tea, thought Hans. The comparison struck him as ludicrous, and his mouth felt suddenly dry. Moistening his lips with his tongue he realised he had become distracted from the texts again. Sophie must have partly been able to read Hans's thoughts, for when she had finished the last but one paragraph, she fell silent, closed the book on her forefinger marking the page, passed it to Hans and said: My dear Monsieur, pray give us the pleasure of hearing you recite the final passage. With that, she smoothed the creases in her dress, daintily crossed her leg and settled back in her chair, gazing at Hans and smiling provocatively. Suddenly she fixed her eyes on the succulent bulge of Hans's throat, a nest of words. Go ahead, said Sophie, savouring the thought, we're listening.
Standing beside the door, neither was able to utter the last word. All the other guests had gone and both Sophie and Hans had bade them farewell one by one without moving, behaving as though they had already taken leave of one another yet postponing their goodbye indefinitely. A gentle breeze seemed to be blowing between them, making them quiver. For want of kissing her violently and putting a stop to the unbearable tension, Hans vented his frustration by being aggressive and referring to her at every opportunity as Frau. Fräulein, corrected Sophie,I am still Fräulein. But you'll soon be married, protested Hans. Yes, she retorted, as you say, soon, but not yet.
They remained silent, almost touching, dismayed by their own aggressiveness, until Sophie added: Don't be impatient, I will invite you to the wedding.
As the days slipped by, they continued to observe the same courtesies when addressing one another, each echoing the other's formal tone, yet imbuing these identical utterances with a note of impatience that was increasingly playful and ambiguous. On the surface nothing was happening. Both kept their composure in their own particular way: Sophie disguised her hot flushes with displays of aloofness, while Hans repressed his desire with theoretical expositions and literary quotations. Sophie derived strength from the heat of the debates themselves, from the analytical distance she forced herself to assume when communicating with him. Hans succeeded in appearing calm when he focused on a theme, losing himself in his argument. On Fridays at midnight when the salon was over, the two of them would talk for a while in the corridor as though on the point of parting, without really parting. They sought to do this in full view of Elsa or Bertold, as if making it clear they had no need to hide everything they needed to hide. After the arrival of Sophie's first letter, they began taking tea together at her house. On those afternoons, Herr Gottlieb would emerge from his study to sit with them and the three would converse amicably. Herr Gottlieb welcomed Hans as warmly as ever, although less effusively. Hans was his daughter's friend now, and he was obliged to withdraw a little in order not to seem like an interfering father, and above all so as to be able to watch over her from a distance. Herr Gottlieb was only too aware of his daughter's tempestuous nature. He knew that any opposition or outright prohibition was enough to make her persist in disobeying him with an obstinacy hesometimes found alarming. And so the most sensible thing to do was to let her have her own way and to stay alert.
Had Hans been capable of thinking about it objectively, he would have understood why Sophie's behaviour towards him was so erratic. When they were face to face, gazing excitedly into each other's eyes, she was confrontational. Yet when another guest criticised his point of view she would discreetly leap to his defence. But these signs remained relatively invisible to anyone else. In part because the language of gestures is not transparent like a piece of glass but reflective like a mirror. And in part because each had their own reasons for interpreting them in their own way.
Besides his habit of not taking part in any of the discussions, with the result that he didn't feel they concerned him in the slightest, Rudi Wilderhaus felt too certain of his position, his status, his betrothal, to be at all concerned. Or rather he was obliged not to be concerned, for if he had been that would have meant lowering himself to the level of an unknown stranger with no social standing. Professor Mietter appeared to find nothing odd either in Sophie's discreet and constant solidarity towards Hans, since (as he himself could testify from his first months at the salon) she was an attentive hostess, whose rule it was to indulge new members in order to make certain they stayed. For this reason the salon had begun with three or four regular members, and now boasted double that number. Moreover, in the professor's view, Fräulein Gottlieb's passionate and somewhat stormy nature was behind her tendency to enliven their debates by siding with whoever was in a minority. And it so happened that the outrageous Hans frequently found himself in a minority. In any event (the professor ended by reassuring himself) Sophie had continued to grant him preferential, even honorific treatment, confirming him as the incontestable authority in the salon and the starting point for any debate.Frau Pietzine might have suspected something amid her giggles and embroidery, yes. But she was far too enthralled by the arrival of this young guest, too amused by the novelty, to go against the tide. As for Herr Levin, who respected and feared Professor Mietter in almost equal measure, in some inadmissible part of his prudent self he was glad of Hans's presence. Not because he agreed with his opinions, but because of the destabilising effect they had on the unshakeable self-assurance of the professor, who was so partial to criticising Herr Levin's own contributions. Álvaro had sided with Hans from the start, and delayed the discussion of any differences they might have for the privacy of the Central Tavern. He did so not only out of loyalty but out of convenience--he had never met anyone as like-minded in Wandernburg, and had felt less lonely since Hans arrived. And Frau Levin? Frau Levin was silent, although she wrinkled her brow thinking who knew what.
That afternoon there were magnolias in the drawing room. After they had taken tea, instead of shutting himself in his study as usual, Herr Gottlieb had stayed on to talk with the two of them. After chatting for a while about nothing in particular, Sophie had suddenly retired to her room. She hadn't done so because she was upset with Hans or annoyed at her father's intrusiveness. Quite the contrary, she had understood that if she wanted Hans's visits to continue unimpeded she must allow her father to keep up his friendship with him. Neither of the two men was able to fathom this simple strategy, and so her father chewed his pipe contentedly and stared at Hans, and Hans coughed disappointedly and stared at Herr Gottlieb.
During their hour-and-a-half-long conversation, accompanied by a bottle of brandy Bertold brought, Herr Gottlieb confided in Hans his concern about the forthcoming betrothal dinners. Luckily, he explained, the first of these would be held at the house of the bride to be. Imagine what a calamity it would havebeen for me, Herr Gottlieb told him, if the Wilderhauses--the Wilderhauses no less!--had received us first in their mansion, and then we--perish the thought!--had returned the honour here in this house. I tell you, I scarcely sleep a wink--scarcely a wink!--just thinking about the menu, what can one offer a Wilderhaus, you understand? Naturally we will be eating in the dining room rather than in here--a little more brandy my friend? Not even a drop?--Anyway, as I was saying, this week we will prepare the room, but will that be enough? I've already asked Petra--do you know Petra? And her daughter?--A fine woman, Petra, when we first employed her she was the best cook of her generation, why do I say was? No, yes, she still is, only things have changed, you know, we no longer entertain like we once did, times change, my friend! And this house, this house, well, anyway, there it is, but we're all so nervous! No, Sophie isn't, Sophie is never nervous, although I have to confess--are you sure you won't have another drop?--I have to confess I find it difficult to stay calm, and what would you think of chicken consommé, noodles with cinnamon, a joint of roast meat, and to follow I don't know, a compote, some meringues, what would you--and champagne, champagne to finish off obviously, but what about with the dinner?--Do you know what wines are served these days in Berlin, you'll ask around? That's good of you, I'd be most grateful. You know it's a great relief talking to you. Don't you think beef would be best?
And I swear, Hans told the organ grinder later on that same evening, it took a supreme effort for me to stay calm while he was talking to me about that accursed dinner. Sophie went to her room, and her father spent two hours telling me about the Wilderhaus family, could things be any worse? The organ grinder, who had been listening, his gaze wandering as he played with Franz's muzzle, finally spoke, only to say somethingcompletely bewildering: And you say there were flowers? Yes, yes, Hans said wearily. What flowers were they? What does that matter? replied Hans, why should you care? What were they? the old man insisted. I think, Hans relented, they were magnolias. Magnolias! the old man brightened up, are you sure? I think so, said Hans, puzzled. Magnolias, said the organ grinder, signify perseverance, she's telling you not to give up. And since when do they mean that? Since for ever, the old man smiled, where have you been living? In that case, said Hans, should I say something to her, declare my feelings? No, the old man said, you have to wait, don't be hasty, she's not asking you to do anything, she needs time. She needs time to consider, but knowing you are still there, do you see? She needs to decide the time of her love, you have no control over it. You must persevere but also wait. Do peasants twist their sunflowers to face the sun? Well. You can't twist magnolias either.
The dawn mist floated in and out of the cave's entrance. Hans and the organ grinder had stayed awake all night. They had just sat down side by side to look at the pinewoods, the river, the white earth. The fire warmed their backs. Hans was fascinated by the organ grinder's silent attention as he contemplated the landscape, sometimes for hours. Hans looked at the old man out of the corner of his eye. The old man looked at the snow-covered scenery. The empty landscape observed itself.
It observed itself weighed down by hardened mud, the long-established frosts, the compacted snow. The submerged pinewoods. The snapped-off branches. The bare tree trunks. In spite of everything, the Nulte went on flowing beneath the crust of ice, went on being the river of Wandernburg. The stark poplars swayed.
Can you hear? said the organ grinder.
Hear what? said Hans.
The cracking sound, said the organ grinder, the crackingsound of the Nulte.
Honestly, said Hans, I don't think so.
There, said the organ grinder, a bit farther down.
I don't know, said Hans, well, a little. And is the river saying something?
It's saying, the old man whispered, I'm on my way. I'm nearly here.
What's nearly here? Hans asked.
Spring, the organ grinder replied, even though we can't see it, even though it's frozen, it is on its way. Stay another month. You can't leave here without seeing Wandernburg in spring.
Don't these frozen trees, this icy landscape, make you feel sad? Hans asked.
Sad? said the organ grinder, they give me hope. They're like a promise.
To the slow, steady rhythm of the handle, the days turned and turned, and Herr Gottlieb's long-awaited betrothal dinners took place. During the first of these, which was held in Stag Street beneath the chandelier that recalled better days in the dining room Hans had never seen, amid the cabinets filled with porcelain and Saxon china figurines, around the big, oblong table that had once seen many more guests, Rudi had presented Sophie with the engagement ring. Eight days later, on the eve of the second betrothal dinner, she had reciprocated by sending him her portrait enclosed in an oval-shaped silver medallion. The Wilderhaus family had behaved towards Herr Gottlieb in a correct if unenthusiastic manner, and were certainly willing to indulge their son Rudi if this wedding was really what he wanted. Neither Sophie nor her father had ever set foot inside Wilderhaus Hall, whose impressive facade they had only seen from King's Parade. Herr Gottlieb's first reaction as they walked around it was shock, followed by awe, then finally exhilaration.Sophie held her chin up and remained silent during most of the dinner. Herr Gottlieb left the mansion feeling profoundly relieved. At last everything seemed to be going smoothly--after the desserts had been served, contrary to his expectations, the Wilderhauses raised few objections to his conditions and had agreed to the sum of her dowry.
Since their first tentative letters, Hans and Sophie had begun writing to each other almost every day, and by now Hans had become a frequent caller at the Gottlieb residence. He had achieved what he thought would be the most difficult aim--becoming Sophie's friend; and once he had, he felt disappointed. As had been their custom for some time, the two of them were taking tea in the drawing room. Herr Gottlieb had retired to his study and they were able to enjoy the luxury of gazing into each other's eyes. As the carpet soaked up the afternoon light, Sophie described in detail the dinner at Wilderhaus Hall. Hans responded to her narrative with a sour smile. Why is she telling me all this? he thought. To show she trusts me? To see how I will react, or to put me off? Even as she spoke to him in a relaxed tone, Sophie could not help wondering: Why does he listen so happily to all this? To show his friendship? So that I make the first move? Or is he distancing himself? Yet the more Sophie shared her misgivings about the opulence of Wilderhaus Hall, the more Hans thought she was trying to bring Rudi into the conversation, and the more he smiled out of self-protection. And the more he smiled, the more Sophie thought he was deliberately showing his aloofness, and so the more she persisted in giving him details. And in their own way, during this exchange, they both felt an uncertain happiness.
Imagine our amazement, Hans, Sophie went on, when half a dozen liveried footmen kept serving ice cream throughout the meal and offering us tea every fifteen minutes, then brought champagne, Scotch whisky and bottles of Riesling after dinner.(I can imagine, Hans replied, how upsetting!) I swear I didn't know whom to greet first or how to address them, there must have been at least two uniformed coachmen, half a dozen servants, goodness knows how many chambermaids, and a kitchen staff the size of a small village (my, what indigestion! exclaimed Hans), seriously, I'm not used to so much etiquette, I wonder how anyone can feel truly at ease surrounded by so many people (oh well, said Hans, as with most things, you grow accustomed to it, you know), the only place where there's any privacy is in the gardens (the gardens, he said, surprised), well, yes, there are two, one at the front and one at the back (of course, of course, Hans nodded), they were pretty, yes, but it sent a shiver up my spine when I realised one of them was full of graves, I'll wager you can't guess whose they were? (You have me on tenterhooks, he said.) The dogs'! Yes, you heard me, eleven dogs are buried there, the family's hunting dogs, and each has a headstone with its name inscribed (how very commendable, Hans said, to extend such treatment to their poor animals), I don't know, it all seems rather excessive to me, why would anyone need four billiard tables? (They certainly know how to keep themselves entertained! Hans said approvingly.) If they even play, because everything in that house looks unused, including the library, which incidentally is vast. I was able to leaf through a few old French volumes which I suspect no one has ever so much as glanced at. (And what about paintings? said Hans. Do they own many paintings, I imagine they must glance at them?) You seem in excellent spirits this afternoon, my friend, I'm delighted you are keen to know so much about my fiancé (I'm burning with curiosity, Fräulein, positively burning! said Hans, shifting in his seat), yes, indeed, they own many paintings, a large collection of Italian, French and Flemish masters they have acquired over the years from local convents. (What a magnificent investment! Hans exclaimed. And do theyhave a music room?) I'm afraid they do, a beautiful little room with gas lamps, and another marble-lined banqueting hall (yes, said Hans, marble is always best for banquets). May I offer you a herbal tea, Herr Hans, you seem a little on edge. Elsa dear, come here will you? I wasn't aware you knew so much about architecture, indeed, I was going to tell you about the English taps and drainpipes, but I'm not sure I should.
Hans arrived at the inn with a hunger on his skin and a hollow feeling in his chest. He had no inclination to go out, preferring to remain slumped on the old settee mulling over his conversation with Sophie. Lisa, who was still up, hastened to serve him what remained of the family's dinner. When he saw her approach with a plate and bowl in her hands, he was suddenly touched. Thank you Lisa, he said, you shouldn't have taken the trouble. There's no need to thank me, she replied, trying to look as if she couldn't care less, I'm only doing my duty. But the pinkish tinge to her cheeks suggested otherwise. In that case I'd like to thank you for doing your duty so well. Thank you, Lisa replied, without thinking. And, after she realised what she had said, she could not help smiling brightly.
Within minutes she was next to him on the sofa, sitting with her feet tucked under her. Where's your father? Hans asked. Asleep, Lisa replied. And your mother? Trying to put Thomas to bed, she said. And you? asked Hans. Aren't you sleepy? Not really, Lisa said, shaking her head. Then she added: What about you? Me? Hans replied, surprised. No, well, a little. Are you going up to your room, then? she asked. I think I will, he said. Do you need some more candles? Lisa said. I don't think so, replied Hans. Lisa stared at him with an intensity that was only possible from someone truly innocent or extremely artful. But Hans knew Lisa was still too young to be that artful. Good night then, Lisa said. Good night Lisa, said Hans. He stood up. She lowered her eyes and began picking at a hangnail.
When Hans was already on the stairs, Lisa's voice called him back. Aren't you going to tell me what you keep in your trunk? she asked, making patterns with her foot. Hans turned around, smiling. The whole world, he said.
Silence radiates, like concentric rings, from the centre of the market square towards the yellowish gloomy alleyways, from the capricious tip of the Tower of the Wind to the sloping contours of St Nicholas's Church, from the high doors to the railings round the graveyard, from the worn cobblestones to the dormant stench of the fields manured for spring, and beyond.
When the nightwatchman turns the corner of Wool Alley and enters narrow Prayer Street, when his cries dissolve into echoes ... to go home, everyone! ... bell has chimed eight! ... your fire and your lamps ... to God! All praise! ... and when his pole with the lantern at its tip is swallowed up by the night, then, as on other nights, a figure emerges from a narrow strip of shadow, the black brim of his hat poking out. His arms are thrust into the pockets of his long overcoat, his hands snug in a pair of thin gloves, his expectant fingers clasping a knife, a mask, a length of rope.
Opposite, there is the sound of light feet, of brisk heels coming down the alleyway. The gloves tense inside the overcoat, the brim of the hat tilts, the mask slips over the face, and the shadowy figure begins to move forward.
In Wandernburg a sandy moon turns full, a moon caught unawares, a moon with nowhere.
Copyright © 2009 by Santillana Ediciones Generales
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